Here are the parts that are in every Dennis Swanson profile, way up
high: In the local broadcast industry, Swanson is one of the best-known
masterminds and one of the biggest risk-takers. And it was Swanson who gave
Oprah Winfrey her big break in Chicago, helping transform WLS Chicago into a
That's the short story. It's true, in New York, he also transformed
a Christmas-tree lighting into a network spectacle. And it's true that, at
ABC Sports, Swanson lobbied the International Olympic Committee to stagger the
winter and summer games.
For the past three years, the former Marine was revamping Viacom's 40
CBS and UPN stations. Now, in perhaps his biggest challenge yet, Swanson,
recently named president of station operations for the Fox Television Station
Group, will test his golden touch on Fox's 35 TV stations.
“I always like a challenge,” he says simply. Like the Viacom
stations, the Fox portfolio—which comprises 25 Fox O&Os, 9 UPN stations
and one independent—is a major project. The Fox stations need to convert the
network's prime time success into higher late-news ratings. Both the Fox and
UPN stations hunger for more successful syndicated fare. The group needs to
ramp up its online and wireless presence.
But Swanson, 67, has a proven, simple formula developed during his 35
years in TV. “Around the country, the stations that are tops in news and have
strong community involvement tend to be the most successful,” he says. Hardly
any television executive would disagree with that. The difference is, Swanson
Growing up in Springfield, Ill., he earned bachelor's and master's
degrees at the University of Illinois. In between, Swanson joined the Marines
(if you were casting an ex-Marine, he'd be perfect for the role).
After a job doing everything at WMT(AM) and WMT-TV (now KGAN-TV) Cedar
Rapids, Iowa, it was quickly on to WGN Chicago and then to desk and producer
jobs at NBC News in Chicago and at its owned station in the Windy City,
With other former NBC executives, Swanson spent three years working on
startup Television News Inc., which fed content to stations. The business
faded, but the contacts he made helped him land at KABC Los Angeles as an
executive producer in 1976.
KABC had never been higher than third place in local news. He shook
things up. For instance, in 1977, as debate raged over Proposition 13, which
proposed limiting state taxes, KABC invited the bill's author Howard Jarvis
on the 5 p.m. news to debate opponents all month. “People were fascinated
with the dialogue, and our ratings started to jump,” Swanson recalls. “It
was different and unconventional, and it worked.”
Within two years, KABC shot to the top of the market. Swanson climbed to
station manager and was sent off to WLS as general manager. The ABC-owned
station needed a new life. It got it.
Swanson's boldest move was hiring Winfrey to host
A.M. Chicago. Winfrey was eager to get out
of Baltimore but, Swanson recalls, was insecure of her talents. She reminded
him that she was a black and overweight. “I told Oprah, 'I am not in the
color business, I am in the win business,'” he recalls. “I told her, I
didn't want her to change her hair, lose weight, buy new clothes or anything.
I just wanted her to be the same person I saw audition.”
WLS marched to No. 1. Swanson moved up to New York to run ABC Sports for
10 years and performed his Olympics coup.
In 1996, he switched networks to run NBC's flagship WNBC New York. The
station was a close second in the market, but Swanson gave it the push over the
top. He used proven tactics to grab top ratings, including heavy community
development, on-air and off. In New York, at the suggestion of Program Director
Adele Rifkin, Swanson pushed WNBC to air the Christmas Tree lighting at
Rockefeller Center live in prime access. It was a smash hit. He aired the
Puerto Rican Day Parade and the St. Patrick's Day Parade, major draws in New
But, after six years at NBC, in 2002, Swanson decided to “retire,”
Not for long. Virtually overnight, he accepting a post at Viacom as
executive VP and COO for the station group. NBC was stunned by the surprise
But for months, Fred Reynolds, then president and CEO of the group, had
been secretly courting Swanson to become his top lieutenant. (Reynolds will
become COO of CBS Corp. when Viacom makes its proposed split into two
companies.) Their mission was to overhaul the lagging CBS-owned stations.
Swanson immediately hit the road to visit every single one of them,
right down to WFRV Green Bay, Wis. “The receptionist said, 'You're the
first suit we've seen in 10 years,'” he recalls.
The group is showing signs of a turnaround. CBS stations in Los Angeles
and New York are improving, and traditionally strong outlets such as WBAL
Baltimore and KDKA Pittsburgh are gaining ground.
Now at Fox, Swanson is reporting to CEO Jack Abernethy and working
closely with his long-time friend Roger Ailes, the new chairman of the station
group, who also continues as chairman, CEO and president of Fox News. “We
have 35 stations in 26 markets,” says Abernethy, “and the opportunity to
get someone like Dennis, who has worked in the business for so long and knows
all the people and the issues, we just couldn't pass up.”
Over his long career, Swanson has learned to be patient with his
stations. “TV stations are like big battleships in the harbor,” he says.
“They turn around very slowly.”