An HD-Vision Thing

Gannett’s Jeff Johnson fearlessly leads his station group into the digital age

Jeff Johnson spends more time everyday thinking about the future of television than most people do watching it.

And day by day, station by station, Johnson, Gannett Broadcasting VP of technology since 2004, is leading his company’s 23 television stations and the 20.1 million households they serve into the digital and hi-def future, earning a Technology Leadership Award along the way.

While some broadcasters are wringing their hands over the government-mandated Feb. 17, 2009, deadline to upgrade their systems to digital, Johnson is more excited than nervous.

“It’s not very often in a person’s career that you have a chance to reinvent television,” says Johnson, 44. “But change is coming over the bow quicker than it ever has before, and, thankfully, we’re ready for it.”

He knew he had his work cut out for him. “In the beginning, I was concerned. It’s expensive. It takes time. But you’re getting on this train at some point. Once you’re on, you can’t say, 'Well, I wish I had waited a little longer.’ You just have to go for it.”

Going for it began with shelling out between $300,000 and $400,000 to upgrade the first station, KUSA Denver, to HD in 2005. Johnson was responsible for purchasing and implementing new cameras, switchers, master controls and automation equipment and completely redesigning the station’s set.

Johnson says cost was a concern but the time was right. ”The stars really lined up for us,” he says. “We were at a point in a number of our markets where we were going to have to make some significant expenditures because of the age of our equipment. We were committed to future-proofing ourselves.”

After wrapping up what Johnson called a “challenging learning experience” with the KUSA transition, he and his team have found their groove Since KUSA, Gannett has upgraded six more stations, five this year alone. “Each one is a little different,” Johnson says. “You learn a lot with each one and avoid painful mistakes the next time out.”

He has held a series of important posts since he began working at Gannett in 1985, holding various engineering roles at the company’s stations, including stints in Atlanta and Tampa/St. Petersburg, Fla.

He says Gannett scans the competitive landscape in all its markets to determine which stations would most benefit from a high-definition makeover and deliver increased advertising revenue. Smaller markets, obviously, have smaller budgets for their transformations.

At WKYC Cleveland, for example, it was a no-brainer because the station is also the broadcast home for the Cleveland Indians, a significant source of advertising revenue with an audience that expects and appreciates HD content.

As the technology guru at Gannett, Johnson has responsibilities that vary from presiding over meetings where he has to manage the hype and expectations for new technology to getting on his hands and knees to connect digital cables on-site.

Lynn Beall, president/general manager at Gannett’s KSDK St. Louis, says Johnson’s unique ability to understand complex technical issues and translate this knowledge into usable and helpful material was crucial during her station’s transition to HD technology. The station’s overhaul was completed in less than four months.

“He’s a technology leader,” she explains, “because he consistently studies the future, explores new technology, and, most important, has a very strong grasp of the practical application needed to make both your product and your production superior.”

She adds, “He also has a great sense of humor in a business that’s going 100 miles per hour, making him a joy to work with each day.”

Johnson was seemingly born to tinker. By the time he was 3 years old, he had successfully disassembled the family stove. Twice.

Well, success is a relative term.

“I broke the heating coils both times,” he says. “They had to be replaced. They looked like springs that could use some adjusting.”

Today, he confesses he’s one of those guys who can walk into friends’ homes and know if (and how) they incorrectly wired their hi-def sets. But he’s reformed, he says, because feelings can be hurt.

“My wife put an end to that,” says Johnson, who owns two HD sets. “If someone asks, I’ll help, but, for the most part, I think it’s safer to just pretend that I don’t know something’s wrong. But it’s so hard sometimes.”