When Dennis Swanson became Broadcasting & Cable’s first-ever Broadcaster of the Year in 2002, he was just a few months shy of retirement from NBC, where he was the savvy VP/GM of New York’s flagship WNBC. On a Friday in July of that year, the station gave him a retirement party and wished him well.
Then boom! On the next Monday, the Viacom Television Station Group named Swanson its chief operating officer, and he quickly got busy turning around the woefully underperforming operations at nearly every CBS-owned station nationwide.
“I want to be like the New York Yankees,” said Swanson’s boss, Viacom TV Station Group President Fred Reynolds, the week Swanson made the unexpected move—which was arranged over weeks of secret meetings between the two at New York’s most out-of-the-way greasy-spoon restaurants.
“I want to win. I want to have a bench like the Yankees. I don’t want to be number three,” Reynolds said, conceding that, in some markets, “third might be an improvement.”
Swanson has something of a magic touch. When he ran ABC-owned WLS Chicago, he found Oprah Winfrey and turned her into a star and also took that station’s news operations from third to first in a hurry. He had the same effect at WNBC, after serving a stint as president of ABC Sports—he was the guy who persuaded the International Olympic Committee to stagger the winter and summer games so one would occur every two years instead of both every four years.
Over the years, as B&C has reported, Swanson has been characterized as a “gruff ex-Marine” so often that the description is practically part of his name. But he gets results. Most CBS O&Os have shown vast improvement since he arrived—though it didn’t hurt that the network he worked for started hitting its prime time stride, too.
“Many of the management principles that I learned came as a result of my military training,” he says, citing the military’s can-do attitude and its chain of command. “In the Marine Corps, the lieutenant takes care of the men and the women first. You see to it that they’re cared for before you take care of yourself. That’s not a bad principle.”
It was notworthy in 2003 when the tradition-bound Tribune Co. named Dennis FitzSimons the CEO of a company with a dozen prestigious newspapers and 27 television stations: Never before in the Tribune’s 157-year history has its leader come from the broadcasting side of the company.
That was the FitzSimons of early 2003, when he became B&C’s second Broadcaster of the Year. Later that year, FitzSimons was upped again, to Tribune chairman.
In more than 20 years at Tribune Co., FitzSimons started hitting his stride first as a sales executive and then as general manager for Chicago’s powerful WGN. He migrated from there in 1992 to head the company’s TV division—at a time when Tribune owned just six stations.
Today, Tribune owns 26 stations covering more than 40% of the nation (though only 30% by the FCC’s calculation, which discounts UHF channels). And, of course, Tribune is 25% owner of The WB network.
Buying into The WB concept in 1995 was perhaps the biggest risk Tribune ever took. Its stations were doing fine without any network, but FitzSimons and his then-boss James Dowdle saw trouble ahead. Their stations, as independents, thrived by showing sports and movies, but both saw the inroads cable was making into those areas.
FitzSimons-watchers weren’t surprised by his pick as Broadcaster of the Year. Al Masini, the former head of TeleRep, who three decades ago worked with FizSimons, told B&C, “The thing I remembered most about Dennis is that he seemed to be a very balanced person. He had everything in good quantities. He was aggressive but, at the same time, not too aggressive. He was diplomatic and had the intelligence and judgment skills required of a top manager. He was tenacious, and he was well-liked by both the clients and the people he worked with.”
David Barrett, president and CEO of Hearst-Argyle Broadcasting and the 2004 B&C Broadcaster of the Year, presides over a group of TV stations that are the envy of the business. But he had worked in radio, not TV, until 1989, when then-Hearst Broadcasting handed him the reins of WBAL Baltimore. He grew from there, and the company did, too.
After a “reverse-merger,” the new Hearst-Argyle emerged, and so did Barrett’s ideals. His company became one of a handful of station-group owners that keep an eye on the principles of serving the public interest without hurting the bottom line. Barrett thinks job one is serving viewers. If that happens, he says, the business imperatives should take care of themselves.
“We define success in television as how effective we are in local communities with our news services and how engaged we are with the community. Part of that is being very engaged on the local sales front and being good partners with our advertisers,” he told B&C.
The newscasts of the Hearst-Argyle stations are usually No. 1 or 2 in their markets. And that’s due not to sweeps stunts but to quality journalism that has been recognized with the country’s most prestigious TV-journalism awards, including Peabody and duPont-Columbia Awards, both gold standards in the business.
In January 2001, Barrett was named CEO of Hearst-Argyle Television, the ninth-largest station group, with 27 stations covering 17% of the country. But he is the first to credit John Conomikes, the now retired chairman of Hearst-Argyle, who gave him his first opportunity to run WBAL. They were a team after that.
Under Barrett, Hearst-Argyle remains a leader and an innovator. But mainly, it seems, Hearst-Argyle simply excels, in large part because of Barrett’s guidance. “The level of competition won’t slow,” he told B&C last year, “and figuring out how to meet the needs of our customers—both advertisers and viewers—is a continual process.”