Back in the old days, if you were one of many competing for a broadcast-station license, you had to promise to manage the station yourself if you wanted any chance of winning the license. "Integration" of ownership and management was the FCC's number-one criterion in choosing among competing applicants.
Of course, just about everybody lied. They all promised integration. But, as soon as the FCC wasn't looking, the winning applicant would leave town, sell to the highest bidder, or pay off any locals who fronted for the applicant and head for the bank.
The FCC had the right idea. It was looking for owners who would be part of their communities and know what's going on within them and who would feel an obligation to provide local programming. It was looking for people like Tom Draper.
For 22 years, Draper has owned and managed WBOC-TV, the CBS affiliate in Salisbury, Md. He has lived in the area most of his life, currently in the resort town of Rehoboth Beach, Del., and commutes 50 minutes past the flat tidewater farms and small towns to the station at least three days a week.
"I'm absolutely involved in the marketplace as are all the people who work here," says Draper. "It's really old-time broadcasting."
Over the years, Draper has owned other TV stations but sold them to concentrate his resources in the one place he knows best.
Salisbury is hemmed in by the Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia markets and currently ranks 151, with about 142,000 TV homes. Yet it's a good place to run a stand-alone TV station. It's growing, drawing retirees and people from those big cities who have enough money for second homes. "It's a pretty nice lifestyle," says Draper. "You have the ocean on one side, the bay on the other and a lot of rivers."
Although cable and satellite bring in the big-city stations, there is only one other local TV station, WMDT, an ABC affiliate with an absentee owner. In the scrap for local ad dollars, Draper seems more concerned about Comcast, the area's largest cable operator, which is becoming increasingly aggressive in ad sales.
Draper's strategy is based on local news: Provide as much of it as possible (he now does 41/2 hours each weekday) and make sure the local news is done right. "It has to be good," he says. "The anchor on the next channel [from a big market] might be making a half a million a year and have all kinds of toys to play with."
Over the past two years, Draper has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in news, to buy a new newsroom system (from AP) and a satellite newsgathering truck (to go with two microwave-only trucks) and to open a bureau in Milton, Del. (It already has one in Dover, Del.). News staffers number around 50. "I doubt any small-market station in the country has as many people as we do," he says.
The investment in people and hardware pays off. The newscasts typically deliver audience shares of 40%-60%.
Draper won't say publicly how much the station is making, but margins are good and he believes the station will continue to thrive if he can resist buying other stations and keep the bankers off his back. He would be tempted to buy some local radio stations if the FCC rules were relaxed to allow it, he admits.
In a sense, he already owns a second TV station in town: his own digital station. Right now, the DTV station broadcasts CBS in HDTV and, starting next January, will also broadcast UPN under terms of a just-signed 10-year affiliation agreement. Cable carriage deals he has signed or is close to signing guarantee that most viewers in the market will be able to receive the UPN signal. To enhance it, Draper says, he will top its prime time offerings each weekday with a 10 p.m. newscast.
Bud Paxson, who owns as many TV stations as anybody, once explained his acquisitiveness: If you own one burger joint, you are flipping hamburgers; if you own many, you are flipping the pages of the Wall Street Journal.
Bud's probably right. But local broadcasting isn't flipping burgers, and, if you ask Tom Draper, I'll bet you he says it's a whole lot more fun than flipping the pages of any newspaper. Bud and some other group owners who know as much about the communities where they own stations as I do about Kabul should give it a try.
Jessell may be reached at email@example.com