Andy Fisher is retiring as the president of Cox Television, but as TV stations face perhaps the toughest period in their 80-year history, Fisher remains as excited about the TV business as the day he unwittingly entered broadcast news more than 40 years ago.
Instead of talking about news, these days Fisher's focus is on the strength of the medium financially. “TV stations remain a high-margin business that will continue to be the envy of a lot of American businesses,” he says. “TV stations are operated by just a few hundred people, but they create revenue flow in the [billions] of dollars.
“During the transition to digital, owners have been rattled. It's been a period of time where people have had to readjust. But for folks who are going to be in the business for a long time, it's just another adjustment.”
Fisher is making a big adjustment. He's stepping down just as television enters its next phase—including the final transition to digital, high-definition and the rest.
He's been in the mix since 1968. When he enrolled at Brown University in 1964, Fisher thought he would become a doctor, lawyer or even a concert pianist (he studied at Julliard as a boy). Anything but a journalist—an idea that hadn't crossed his mind even though his mother worked in public relations in Manhattan, giving him plenty of experience with late-night phone calls from harried reporters.
Perhaps it was that familiarity with reporters that drew him to Brown's student-run radio station, where he hung out to kill time between classes.
Fisher fell into the big time when he showed up prepared to record a speech given by the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Earl G. Wheeler, in 1966. Protests against the Vietnam War were heating up. Students at the speech threw chairs at the general. Fisher was the only reporter at the event to get the general's comments about it on tape.
He immediately had the presence of mind to offer his tape to radio stations around New England. “Soon I was getting calls from radio stations all over the country,” he says. “A few weeks after that, stringer checks started showing up in the mail. I received about $300, which was an enormous sum in 1966. I began attending speeches and recording them. By the time I graduated, I had gone from college radio to professional radio.”
After college, he worked for a Providence, R.I., TV station for a couple of years, and then started getting offers that took him all over the country, from Atlanta to Oklahoma City to New York.
In Manhattan, at WCBS, Fisher encountered one of his initial TV firsts: He did a live mini-cam report while reporting on a fatal incident at a construction site in Queens.
“I've gotten the chance throughout my career to be on hand at a number of major transitions,” Fisher says. “The industry went through the transition from black and white to color when I was very young. I saw the birth of live remote broadcasts when I was at WCBS.”
But that was Fisher's last gig as a reporter. After New York, he entered the executive ranks, serving in news management at stations across the country, including CBS-owned WBBM Chicago. It was there he first met his now good friend, Deborah Norville.
Norville was a weekend anchor/reporter at WAGA Atlanta, a station Fisher would soon know well. Norville was looking to move up, and had accepted an interview at WBBM. Just as she was preparing to fly to Chicago, she got a memo that Andy Fisher, assistant news director at WBBM, was joining the staff as WAGA's news director.
“I was thinking, 'I am busted,'” laughs Norville, now anchor of CBS Television Distribution's Inside Edition. She headed up to Chicago anyway, and there met Fisher, who “bowed down before me prayerfully and said 'Don't come here! It's awful. Why do you think I'm leaving?'” She went back to Atlanta and worked for Fisher through 1981, when she left for NBC's WMAQ Chicago.
“Andy has this incredible gift of being able to look at what others see as the same old thing with a new set of eyes,” says Norville, who now serves with Fisher on the board of the Broadcasters Foundation of America. “He has an enthusiasm that's contagious.”
Fisher, meanwhile, had two very successful years at WAGA, then headed west to work as news director at KCBS Los Angeles.
He wasn't there long before Walter Liss, then at Cox (but now head of the ABC Owned Stations Group), recruited him to return to Atlanta as VP and general manager of Cox's WSB. That would be Fisher's leap out of news and into management, in the city that Cox calls home.
That was the last time Fisher changed companies and the first time he believed television—not medicine or law—was his calling, even though he had been working as a journalist for 16 years and had picked up eight Emmys along the way.
“Walter hired me at WSB to undo the damage I had done while I was at WAGA,” Fisher says. “He thought what I knew about news and marketing would enable us to change the ratings, and I would have to learn the sales and business side on the job.”
Fisher's “critical partner in that effort,” was Bruce Baker, who handled the station's sales market. Baker went on to become executive vice president for Cox Television and will lead the division when Fisher retires. Fisher and Baker spent six years building WSB into a powerhouse.
“When I think of Andy, I think of three things,” says Monica Kaufman Pearson, the longtime 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. anchor of WSB's newscasts. “The first is technology. He's really a techno-geek. He would buy the equipment we needed before anyone else in the market had it. Getting us into the information age will be one of his contributions to Cox forever.
“The second is that he was never afraid to do the big story, even if that meant sending someone all the way to Egypt. Under Andy, we did a lot of things that were more like network than local.
“The third is research. He's always believed very strongly in doing research about talent and about what viewers want, and that's important.”
Bill Hoffman, WSB's current general manager, kept Fisher's vision and values his guidance. “He's a wise man with whom to consult as you go through the day-to-day of putting out a news product.” Hoffman says. “Everyone would like their group head to have that kind of wisdom and experience.”
In 1990, Fisher was promoted to executive VP of Cox's television affiliates, moving to the corporate ranks for the first time. He remained in that job for a decade before taking over leadership for Cox's 15 TV stations and three national TV rep firms in 2001 as president of Cox Television.
Fisher also made his mark as a tireless advocate for the station business, taking on opposing interests on several occasions, including the broadcast networks and the satellite TV operators. He's served on many boards, including the National Association of Broadcasters, where he was both chairman and vice chairman of the TV board; the Association for Maximum Service Television; Television Operations Council; and the Broadcasters Foundation. He's chaired the boards of the ABC Affiliate Board of Governors, the Television Bureau of Advertising and the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance. He's been an honorary trustee of the American Women in Radio and Television since 2001.
His tenure as NAB chair was perhaps the most controversial of his career. There, Fisher and other station-group heads made a point of taking on the broadcast networks on several key policy points, including an ownership cap that restricted broadcast networks from owning stations that combined covered more than 35% of the country, as well as network contracts some affiliates said restricted their independence. That rift eventually helped persuade CBS, Fox, NBC and ABC to quit the NAB; NBC and ABC have since rejoined.
“I always felt that Andy was one of the strongest advocates for local television that we had in the industry,” says Jack Sander, senior advisor to Belo Corp., and its former vice chairman and president of media operations. “He's very strategic in his thinking. He's always been someone who could take a step back, look at the bigger picture and consider what we were really trying to accomplish. And he was always very aggressive and willing to take a stand on tough issues on which we didn't always have unanimity.”
Fisher also has been active in many civic organizations, including the Atlanta chapters of the American Red Cross and March of Dimes, Zoo Atlanta and the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.
Whatever he does next—and some of his time will be spent traveling the world with his two sons, scuba diving and working on his underwater photography—his friends expect him to tackle it with the same enthusiasm, passion and intelligence they say he's brought to broadcasting.
“Andy is a brilliant warrior,” says David Barrett, president and CEO of Hearst-Argyle Television and an executive who has long fought side-by-side with Fisher. “We're anxious to see what the fourth act of his play will be. I suspect it will be very different than the path he's taken in the past.”