Marci Burdick, senior VP of Schurz Communications, oversees eight blue-chip TV stations, 13 radio stations and a pair of cable operations. The former chair of the NBC affiliates board, Burdick is an active champion of broadcasting in Washington, where she is chair of the National Association of Broadcastersâ€™ television board. She testified before Congress in June about the value of local television.
Schurz launched as a newspaper company in 1872, added radio in 1922 and television in 1952. Amid a torrid summer of TV station M&A, its smallish batch of standout stations, including WSBT South Bend (Ind.) and WDBJ Roanoke (Va.,), would seem a prime takeover target. Burdick says Schurz has no plans to exit local TV.
Burdick will be honored as 2013 Broadcaster of the Year at the TVB Forward conference in New York on Sept. 18. She spoke with B&C deputy editor Michael Malone about the challenges of running an independent group in the age of consolidation, the fallout from publicly fought retrans battles and the viewer feedback that inspires her to defend local broadcast in D.C. An edited transcript follows.
What has been your professional highlight in 2013?
I testified in front of Congress for the first time in my life! That was really interesting for me. It was also worrisome; Iâ€™ve managed to successfully avoid it all these years. But Iâ€™m glad I did it, and it was really interesting to see how people are thinking about issues around retransmission.
Why is the satellite TV law you testified about important to broadcasters?
Whatâ€™s really important is for broadcasters to tell the story of how important it is to produce local contentâ€”the vital link we provide. As I told [Congress], there is no app for that, for what we are doing. Thatâ€™s often lost when the business discussions get loud around times like what we are currently going through.
The Time Warner Cable vs. CBS battle got ugly. What do you make of it?
When you look at the outages in the last two or three years, about 75% of them come from three companies. Time Warner is one. [Burdick later identified Dish and DirecTV as the others.] I donâ€™t think CBS has been dark anywhere else. It seems to me, as an outsider, maybe one [company] has a business strategy of trying to ramp up some of these issues. Everyone hates to put the customer in the middle; nobody wins when that happens. By the same token, I sure hope we donâ€™t get to a day when you canâ€™t see the Super Bowl or the NFL on free over-the-air television. Unless broadcasters are afforded appropriate payments for the value of the content we provide, thatâ€™s the future consumers have.
In the midst of it, customers just [wanted] it resolved. And I get it. I also oversee cable. Weâ€™re the small guy on both sides of the table, and I can talk out of both sides of my mouth. The fact of the matter is, theyâ€™re tough negotiations, but most of the time they get done.
The other big story has been all the station deals. Is that good or bad for the industry?
Having been around a long time now, I can remember two or three periods where consolidation came fast and furious. Certainly the size of the deals and the suddenness with which theyâ€™re occurring and the fact that longtime companies like Belo are involved is interesting. Part of me would honestly like to believe there are a lot of stations left where the man or woman who owns it goes to the Rotary Club in town for lunch once a week, but that really isnâ€™t the reality in the world we live in. Everything is consolidating. Itâ€™s yet to be seen if itâ€™s good or bad for business. Some groups that are involved have great proven track records as broadcasters, and it could be a good thing.
Does it make it harder for Schurz to compete against these monoliths?
Itâ€™ll be more difficult to compete for syndicated programming. We anticipate getting squeezed on a couple different ends on retransmission consent, from networks that see us as smaller, and MSOs that see theyâ€™ll have to pay bigger dollars to larger groups. I tend to be a Pollyanna sometimes on these things. But we will control what we can control, and our value is the importance to the customers in each market in which we reside. In almost every case weâ€™re a dominant No. 1 station, and we think we provide services that customers canâ€™t do without. As a result we bring value beyond our fighting weight to our network in the local news footprint we have. And we have value to the MSOs as we are, I think in almost every case, the top-viewed station, or No. 2 or 3. Thatâ€™s what we can control, and thatâ€™s what we concentrate on.
As a company that has been in business 140 years, weâ€™ve lived through these times before. And there are lessons from the past we can turn to for the future.
Schurz would seem a prime takeover target. Are you getting knocks on the door?
I bet a week doesnâ€™t pass that someone doesnâ€™t call and ask.
Are they serious buyers?
I would say there have been serious ones. But from [president/CEO] Todd Schurzâ€™s perspective, they meet every year for the family meeting and discuss whether they want to be operators or sellers, and every year the vote is unanimous about continuing to operate. Itâ€™s a pretty quick call.
Whatâ€™s your top priority as chair of the NAB television board?
Top priorities include navigating the spectrum band plan the [FCC] is out with, and making sure broadcasters are protected there. Thereâ€™s retransmission consent. We put a lot of time and study around the next-generation broadcast platformâ€”do we migrate to a different platform that allows us to compete more robustly in the digital world? What are the consequences of action and inaction?
Ever see yourself as a station owner?
Iâ€™ve said this for years, since I was a news director at a station. Working for Schurz, I probably
feel like an owner in terms of my ability to make decisions, the freedom I have to operate stations. Itâ€™s a great place to be without putting my own money at risk [laughs]. Iâ€™m really happy at the place Iâ€™m at in my life. I might be an early retiree before I go out and buy a station. I always said Iâ€™d have a second career at some point, do the good works of mankind. But who knows?
What words come to mind when we talk about a Schurz station?
No. 1. Best news. Robust community service. Fabulous local leadership. Weâ€™re unique in that we cede a lot of decision-making authority to the local level. We have tremendous leadership at the property level. Innovative. Calculated risk-takers.
Itâ€™s an off-yearâ€”no major political spending, no Olympics. What is something Schurz has done to make up for lost revenue?
Weâ€™re investing heavily in new media solutions and trying to expand our footprint beyond broadcast. For example, sports [news] on television is three or four minutes a night. We invest pretty heavily in local sports microsites, on mobile and desktop, in which we cover local sports far more deeply than we ever do on television. One is CatchitKansas.com and the other is OzarkSportsZone.com. If you look at our mobile apps, youâ€™ll see we cover high school bowling, which weâ€™ve never done on television.
We invest resources and technology, because those things cannot be replicated by other companies; I donâ€™t think they can come up with a business plan to really support it. Itâ€™s got tremendous traction in terms of audience growth and hits and the money weâ€™re able to generate as a new category of revenue.
You have stations in markets with extreme weather. Did you see that lifeline in action this year?
Absolutely. We have a station in Kansas, in Tornado Alley; in addition to the CBS signal, [KWCH] also does a 24/7 weather channel. Their business plan is, whenever the weather starts to develop in the DMA or out, they go live. They just kind of narrate play-by-play as theyâ€™re forecasting and storm-tracking. I watched it on a mobile app in Las Vegas for hours one night. Weâ€™ve been on-air 26 hours straight, commercial-free in weather coverage. At the end of it, when you get letters from people saying, [chief meteorologist] Merril Teller and KWCH saved my familyâ€™s life, it makes it all worth it. Again, thereâ€™s not an app for that.
You mentioned learning lessons from Schurz's past. What's a key lesson?
Be an integral part of the community. I saw a story about Frank Schurz, Sr., who was a newspaper publisher when newspaper publishers were embracing a nascent business called radio. Many took views that they should squash them. Frank took the view that it is another way to service customers and advertisers and readers.
We were in radio [WGAZ South Bend] 18 months after the first commercial station launched in Philadelphia; I don't think you could buy a radio in South Bend at that point. We're the oldest continually operated UHF television station in the U.S. because we jumped into television early. It was another way to serve, another way to extend the value of the brand. We had websites up in the early â€˜90s, before most customers had very rich broadband. So we have a long view of our ability and the importance of providing local content regardless of how the platforms migrate.
There is some sentiment that, if you're not buying, you're not growing and you're not in the game. Is Schurz in the running for station acquisitions?
We're always looking to acquire. We're in some negotiations now. We have a self-imposed debt limit. That's another lesson from the past-be able to withstand the bad times and invest capital in your business. We've had a self-imposed debt limit that's been lower than what we would be comfortably lent, and we tend to therefore restrict ourselves, so that we buy less-one or two at a time. That's the self-imposed limitation-we'll grow but we'll grow slower. We try to buy blue chip and quality when we buy.
Does Schurz have any retrans issues right now?
We've never gone dark. We've come close, one time with a satellite company, but we were able to get the deal done. And we've never gone dark both ways-as a cable company, we've never pulled a signal, and we never pulled a broadcast signal.
Do you think these flare-ups will become the norm as time goes on?
I suspect we'll probably see more for a couple reasons. One, I do think a couple companies, as their business strategy, try to get some political pressure and get a solution that way. The other side of it, quite honestly, what is going to be the expectation of the network in terms of payments? We have to negotiate with our networks and we hope their negotiations are reasonable in terms of what the market really is.
Where is Schurz in its mobile TV plans?
We have one station, in Wichita, that's up with the Mobile500 group. We believe in mobile, we believe in the mobile future-we're just trying to figure out how the business evolves around the various plans, and how the devices evolve.
In Anchorage, we have launched local news and programming with SyncBac, called "Airwave."
Where does local TV stand in terms of its history, its significance, its importance to the community? Is its golden age over?
The golden age [was] when there were three networks and that is undoubtedly over, but that was over a long, long time ago. And yet broadcast stations remain the highest consumed content on any platform. So our ability to serve customers in new ways, on different platforms, on-demand, will be a challenge to reallocate resources, and a challenge as revenue migrates. But the opportunities are so much more exciting than they've ever been. There is no doubt our business will change but I think we will survive and thrive because at the end of the day, it's still the best resource for advertising, and we are a lifeline for local viewers and listeners.