If the demise of The WB and UPN signifies the end of an era, it is particularly so for Doug Gealy, president/COO of ACME Communications. It was nearly 10 years ago that Gealy, a 25-year veteran of local broadcasting, helped launch ACME to buy and build affiliates of the fledgling WB. But for Gealy, it is also the beginning of a new chapter. Come September, when the two networks are replaced by The CW and MyNetworkTV (MNT), he will run one of the larger groups of CW affiliates in the country.
“This is the most important thing we've done since we launched the stations,” Gealy says. With seven future CW affiliates and one soon-to-be MNT station, in Albuquerque, N.M., under the ACME tent, he knows the stakes are high. If viewers are confused when the old networks go dark, they may turn away and never return.
“We're going to spend a lot of money to get the messages across,” he says.
Gealy's roots in local broadcasting go back to his native Ohio, where he sold radio advertising before taking his first TV-sales job at WTOV Steubenville. He soon began climbing the sales ranks at WKEF, the NBC affiliate in Dayton.
At 29, Gealy became general manager of WHOI, the ABC affiliate in Peoria, Ill., where he hired a news director to develop faster-paced news with an emphasis on investigative pieces. The station's ratings and bottom line improved, and, two years later, Gealy jumped to a top-50 market as general manager for NBC affiliate WCMH Columbus, Ohio.
The early days at WCMH were rocky. The station's husband-and-wife anchor team broke up, another star anchor left, and the weatherman was nabbed for possession of narcotics supplied by the station's on-air doctor. Gealy worked to clean up the station's image with heavy on-air promotion and bolstered its investigative-news brand.
He also cut a deal on behalf of Outlet Communications, then-owner of WCMH, to operate independent WWHO under a local marketing agreement, one of the first such deals in the country. While considering pitches for WWHO from the newly launched WB and UPN networks in 1994, Gealy met then-WB chief Jamie Kellner.
“Doug understood the TV business and had a lot of integrity,” says Kellner. “He was the kind of person I would feel comfortable working with.”
While the two discussed starting a station group, Gealy took an executive position with Benedeck Broadcasting when Outlet sold out to NBC. Six weeks later, he left to join Kellner and ex-Fox CFO Tom Allen in launching ACME (the name was inspired by the fictional company from Warner Bros.' Looney Tunes cartoons).
“I wanted to be more entrepreneurial,” he recalls. “I didn't want to be a slow ship; I wanted to be a speedboat.”
Armed with $200 million, ACME bought stations in midsize markets, like St. Louis and Dayton, as well as smaller ones like Green Bay, Wis., and Knoxville, Tenn. In 1999, the group acquired its lone duopoly, in Albuquerque.
Gealy invested $170,000 of his own money to find new stations to acquire and launch new signals. The group also started a youth-targeted morning show, The Daily Buzz, now syndicated in 140 markets.
Investing in programming and infrastructure, ACME helped turn many lackluster stations around, including KWBP Portland, Ore., which, Kellner recalls, had a meager 1 share of audience when ACME bought it in 1996. Six years later, the station claimed a 9 share and garnered $270 million in a joint sale with KPLR St. Louis. “Even in this incredibly competitive environment,” says Kellner, “Doug and his team have been able to grow businesses.”
Given their history with The WB, ACME stations were favored to win CW affiliation in their markets. But Gealy insists the group considered MNT affiliation, as well as going independent. In the end, he and the company decided The CW was “the safer play.”
And with programming anchored by “the best of The WB and UPN,” Gealy says, ACME's CW stations face the future stronger than ever.