Three years ago this month, Valari Staab took on a unique challenge. Named president of the NBC owned station group, she inherited a terribly tarnished batch of local outlets, long unloved by former parent GE. Flush with resources from a far more generous steward in Comcast, Staab set about improving morale, content, ratings and revenue.
The numbers suggest she’s on the right track. Comcast reported a 17% boost in broadcast revenue in the first quarter, even with the Olympics taken out of the equation, reflecting both NBC’s resurgent primetime and new life in the station group. Brian Roberts, Comcast chairman/CEO, singled out the group for its “strong progress” while addressing investors.
The former KGO San Francisco general manager spoke with B&C deputy editor Michael Malone about turning around the NBC, and Telemundo, stations by empowering managers at the local level, and the prospects for acquiring more local assets. An edited transcript follows.
Are the stations where you thought they’d be three years ago?
I actually think we’ve made more progress than I would have anticipated, and we made it quicker than I had anticipated. We want to be No. 1 or No. 2 in news time periods. When I took over, 39% of the newscasts were No. 1 or No. 2. We added midday newscasts, which had been off the air for a long time. We added the 5 o’clock in New York. We added a lot of newscasts and even with those, we’re now 70% No. 1 or No. 2 in most of our markets. Across 10 stations, that’s pretty good progress.
There’s the perception that the NBC stations get whatever they ask for, that running the group is like managing the Yankees. Do you hear ‘no’ sometimes from your boss?
[Laughs] Unfortunately, I’m the one who has to say no with the stations. [NBCUniversal CEO] Steve [Burke] and [NBC Broadcasting chairman] Ted [Harbert] were wildly generous with the stations, but I know from being in this business for as long as I have and from operating some tough stations in tough markets that whatever we invest in the stations, we’ve got to be able to get a return from. So I’ve spent less than they were willing to allow us to spend because I wanted to be very responsible with every dollar. So no, the stations have not gotten absolutely everything they wanted. But if you look at where they came from, they probably feel like they’re getting a lot, because they had their resources cut back so much. They’ve got every basic that they need and it’s, ‘Gee, I wish I had this,’ instead of, ‘Wow, I’m in trouble if I don’t have this.’
Next up is a similar turnaround initiative with the Telemundo stations, yes?
Yes. It’s tougher to make a living in Spanishlanguage television—there just aren’t as many dollars in our markets. But we do feel that viewer is wildly underserved for local news, especially weather. So we’re putting together very aggressive local news and weather plans in our markets. And the stations, again, were very low-resourced; it’s amazing how much they were doing with what they had.
There is still a lot of work to do there. We still have a couple of markets where all of their news isn’t coming out of their market. We’ve been putting local news back on in Las Vegas. Denver’s 10 p.m. news is taped, so we’re making changes to their operation so they can go live at 10. And we’ve got two recent acquisitions that we’re trying to get up to speed—[KTLM] McAllen [TX] and [WWSI] Philadelphia—we launched a newscast for the first time [on WWSI] in January.
Any more plans for buying or selling?
We’re looking all the time. It’s easier for things to come up on the Telemundo side; we’re still looking for big markets, but we’re looking at anything. On the NBC side, we’re interested, but there are just fewer options out there because Gannett owns a big group of NBC stations, Hearst owns a big group, Media General [too]. They want to keep their stations. So it’s beyond that that we’re looking, and there’s just not much available.
I was speaking with a veteran broadcaster in Miami who, when Comcast acquired NBC, said, “We’re dead. It’s a Comcast market, they’ve got NBC and Telemundo stations, they’re going to be zoning ads and they’re going to own the market.” But he hasn’t seen that happen. To what degree is there sales synergy in your Comcast cable-NBC station markets?
There’s a lot of sales synergy between Telemundo and the NBC stations. It was harder to do that when they weren’t in the same division. [Editor’s note: Staab consolidated the NBC and Telemundo stations into one group in 2013.] We’re just getting started in showing the value of the combination of the two stations. We reach 80%-plus of the Latino population in our duopoly markets, between the two. We think there’s synergy and strength in the Telemundo- NBC duopoly.
With [Comcast] Spotlight, it’s a different sell. We compete against Spotlight, so it’s harder to lay a path for what’s really additive there. There is a lot of value in staying competitive in our markets. It’s to be continued.
The stations launched [digi-net] Cozi TV in place of its Nonstop local channels. When ABC announced it was discontinuing Live Well Network, they spoke of focusing on local content. But Cozi is a national play.
The Nonstop model was wildly ambitious and a great idea. The problem is, with the resources at the stations, they couldn’t be really great local news operations and do 10 to 12 half-hour shows a week. And even with 10 to 12 shows, that’s a lot of repeats on a 24/7 network. It was, to me, overly ambitious based on the resources you could afford to put into it.
Why is Meredith Vieira a good daytime fit?
Our audience already knows her and loves her. She was wildly popular on the Today show—everyone hated to see her go. [Her coming daytime show is] a good complement with what we’re trying to build there. We think Meredith, Steve [Harvey] and Ellen [DeGeneres] is a great combination. Meredith is very real, she’s very genuine, she is who she is. In daytime we’re certainly finding people want to connect with someone that’s genuine.
It’s going to be shot here in 30 Rock, which will be great for us and I think great for her because it’s her own set. Jimmy Fallon’s studios are on the same floor, right next to each other. And with the Today show here, Saturday Night Live and the hubbub of all these people coming and going, it will be a good place for Meredith to attract good guests. We think it’s very compatible with our stations.
What’s one aspect of group management that took you by surprise?
The biggest learning is how everything you say can have a times-ten impact whether you mean it to or not. I’ve always been very quick to give my opinion on something, and until people get to know you in this job, with as many employees as I have, I really need to be careful that my opinion doesn’t become their opinion. I’ve learned to couch when and how I give my opinion so that it doesn’t get misread as, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ You learn some of that as a general manager because you can have that same effect, but it’s just so much more at this level. What I really wanted to do is empower the general managers to run their own stations; the last thing I want to do is then come into the station and overshadow what they do.
Do you see a different culture in the station newsrooms today?
I feel it’s a completely different culture. We had really good people in those newsrooms when I walked through the door, so it’s not like there weren’t good journalists there. But they weren’t allowed to do their best work. We’ve put conditions in these newsrooms where they really can do their best work and they’re being recognized for their best work. I think everyone in the stations is valuing enterprise journalism in a way that they weren’t before.
Why did you invest so much in the stations’ investigative teams?
That was all about developing a culture of enterprise journalism in the newsroom. It was about healing our newsrooms. They’d been pared down so much that people were just trying to get a newscast on the air that day, so we had lost a lot of our enterprise journalism in these newsrooms. It wasn’t just about getting the unique content that an I-team will give you, which is important. It was about getting that spirit in all the reporters—the fun of breaking a story, of being the first with something, of bringing something unique to the morning meeting, as opposed to being assigned a story. It was to change the culture in the newsrooms, and the I-teams were the fastest way to do that because it just gets everybody going. When a story makes a big stir in the market, it gets the whole newsroom excited. Reporters want to break something, to have a story nobody else has. So it was really about setting up a culture of enterprise journalism.
Now they’re getting recognized for real, solid journalism, and they’re making a difference in their market. They’re getting laws changed. They’re doing the work that’s the reason journalists get into this business. It’s easy when you’re in the corporate environment to forget that this big group of people that work for you are not there for the paychecks, they’re there because they want to make the world a better place, they want to make their community a better place. They’re motivated differently than someone who’s working because they want to make more money. A big thing we’ve done is change the culture to reinforce why they got in this business in the first place.
What about investigative on the Telemundo side?
We’ve taken a hard look at what Spanish-language viewers want and it’s really consumer [advocacy]. So we’ve launched a really creative thing called Telemundo Responde. It’s basically a consumer unit that we set up and based in Dallas, in the middle of the country, that answers consumer complaints. It’s not just looking for stories. We’ll go after the car guy who sold you a lemon, or the mortgage problem. We’ll try to convince them to do the right thing by the consumer, then see if there’s a trend occurring in that group. If a story has wider implications for the audience, they’ll send that back to a consumer reporter and producer in each of the Telemundo stations to do their own story on it. But it actually does solve consumer problems—it’s not just generating stories.
We started about three months ago, have done around 140 stories already, and they’ve returned $70,000 to consumers. So that’s quicker than we expected to have real results. The nice thing is, it gives the stations original content, something to talk about. So each of the consumer reporters, photographers, producers in each of the markets, each one of those teams, are doing their own stories all the time and they’re helping consumers. We think a central consumer group is the right way to go on the Spanish-language side because so often people try to take advantage of them because English is not their first language. We feel like there is a real opportunity to make a difference in our communities with that.
Boston is missing from NBC’s owned portfolio. Is there interest in buying WHDH?
We’d love Boston, but [Sunbeam TV’s Ed Ansin] doesn’t want to sell! Should he change his mind, we’d love to have it!
In terms of M&A, is there anything on the NBC side that doesn’t quite fit the group’s profile?
We don’t feel like anything doesn’t fit our profile. We love even our little stations—and our little stations aren’t that little, they’re market No. 30 or bigger, so in any other group they would be a big station. But aside from just being good stations that do a good job in their market, they’re training grounds for our large stations. We’ve developed a great system of being able to put somebody in that size market and get them as good as we can and promote them into the bigger stations.
Is there more of that going on now?
A lot more. This year, it’s really started to happen, where people are getting promoted. The general sales manager from our San Diego station just became the general sales manager for our Chicago station. We’re really starting to see that movement happen between our Telemundo stations too.
Is that a formal initiative?
It was our hope that we develop good people and they would be the top choice of our stations, but there’s no pressure to hire anybody but the best person they can get.
Now that the stations are staffed up better, will there be more local content on the local Cozi TV channels?
With all the programming choices that people have, doing 10 or 12 great local half-hours a week is tough. So we’ll continue to have our focus be news. When necessary, we’ll bleed news over to Cozi or we’ll shift programming from our main channel to Cozi so we can put news on our main channel. But we’re building a retro TV business out of Cozi, and that is one of the things that has worked on D2. Cozi is getting real ratings, it’s getting real advertising sales, we’re building a real business out of it. We’re giving any station that’s an affiliate, including our own, a lot of flexibility with doing local things, like if they want to do a Friday night high school football game. But the base of the programming is the retro programming.
Is Cozi a success?
Absolutely. It was profitable in its first year and it’s doing really well.
What’s been the most responsible for NBC’s ratings gains in daytime?
Steve Harvey. He way improved a time period that was going nowhere. And the really unique thing he did was increase Ellen’s viewership with a group of viewers that simply were not watching her. African-American women had not been onto Ellen yet. Once they found her, they liked her.
How would you grade the synergies between the Comcast SportsNets and station sports departments in common markets?
I went through the ABC-Disney merger, so this is my second big one. I think this one has gone really well. Comcast has been very willing to listen to our ideas and our input on their ideas. We are now the national rep for most of the RSNs [regional sports networks]. We’ve had to pitch that business and earn it on our own merit, which is good because I think it’s the only way you maximize assets—to let people have a choice and pick what they think is best for them.
We’ve let the relationship between the RSNs and the stations come together or not based on the personalities of the people in the markets. KNTV had no sports image in the Bay Area. Pairing with Comcast SportsNet, which has a very strong image in that market, has been a real positive for KNTV, and it’s given the viewers way more sports coverage than that station would ever do on its own. But other SportsNets have basically kept separate from the [station] sports department. Washington is not merged with the [local Comcast] SportsNet; it’s always had a very strong sports image. It’s the home of The George Michael Sports Machine, it’s always had a legacy of its own. So it does things with the CSN, but the CSN is not its sports. In Philadelphia, Comcast SportsNet has a great reputation in that market—it’s a big operation, tons of access to the teams. It is becoming WCAU’s sports department. It’s, again, a case of letting the people that are in the market decide what works for both entities.
Outside of a few helicopter partnerships, NBC has largely removed itself from Local News Shares. Why the lone wolf approach?
All of them were really set up differently. Stations felt differently about them; we let the station decide. Everyone assumed that was my decision; they assume a lot of decisions are mine that are not! If they asked me, I told them what I thought, but I 100% left it to the market. In some markets, it worked better than others. In some, it worked well for a long time and then started to not work so well, so they got out. It’s been a different experience in every market.
Which station has had the biggest turnaround in three years?
Probably the largest swing has been [WTVJ] Miami because it was in the worst shape of all the stations when I took over. If you saw a newscast from three years ago there vs. now, it’s pretty shocking. They were down to so few people and they were very disheartened because they had gone through NBC putting them up for sale. They were just not on—people were not engaged and happy in their jobs. And that’s a tough, tough market, a low ratings market.
We put two Telemundo people in charge of the station. When Manny Martinez was running the Telemundo station in Miami, we hired him to run the NBC station and he hired the head of news for the Telemundo station, Migdalia Figueroa, to be news director. So you put two people who live the Miami bicultural life in charge of that station and I think it’s the first time a traditional network station, certainly ABC, CBS or NBC, in that market, really understood the bilingual viewer in Miami. And they have a very close relationship with the Telemundo station there, which is an incredibly strong station; it’s often No. 1 in the market if you put the languages together. Once they started to have some success, the troops were so thrilled to be moving forward that the momentum really built. That’s a station that was in fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh place. And they’re No. 2 in the mornings now, they’re No. 2 at 6 [p.m.], they’re regularly No. 1 or No. 2 at 11. So they really fought their way back.
What was the message behind rebranding the group from NBC Local Media to NBC Owned Television Stations right after you took over?
If the network dictates to the stations, there’s going to be many times that what’s right for the station is not what’s right for the network. The station will lose every one of those battles if the network is over the stations. If they’re owned but not operated [by the network], then I slug it out with the top people at the network and sometimes I win and sometimes I lose. But I don’t lose 100% of the time. So you’re more likely to be able to have some balance and better represent the unique differences in the market.
Any big launches coming up—station facilities, newscasts, etc.?
On the Telemundo side, we’ve got a lot. KVEA [Los Angeles] is launching a brand new set [June 15] and it is gorgeous—I think it’s one of the prettiest sets in the nation. KSTS [San Francisco] just launched a morning news for the first time ever. So they have [an early] morning news and a 10 a.m. half-hour news.
KNSD [San Diego] is going to be building a brand new station—they’re close on an announcement on what will be their new location. You saw the Philadelphia announcement; [WCAU] is going into the Comcast Center. [WRC Washington] is doing a major three-year remodel of their building.
What about TV Everywhere?
We were hoping for a June launch [but] it looks like it’s going to be the second week in September. We’re probably going to launch three or four stations [WNBC New York, WMAQ Chicago, KNSD San Diego], and then two or three weeks later the other six, just to get the kinks out. That’s been a big project; that’s a lot to figure out.
But it looks really nice. It’s basically a redesign of NBC.com and it has a carousel—if there are four stories in the carousel, one of them is live TV. There’s a preview before it asks you to authenticate.
The Telemundo stations launch it next year. It’s just a million and one details, legally clearing the rights to absolutely everything on the air. It’s a lot. But we’re finally getting there, so we’re excited about that.