NATPE 2009: Stations Buckle Down

Look to news, operation sharing to keep lid on costs in tough times

In the toughest economic environment broadcasters say they have ever seen, station executives are changing up business models, experimenting with programming and retraining sales staff to eke out what revenue they can from a dry marketplace.

“I've always thought 2009 was going to be a difficult year, and I don't see anything changing that,” said Dennis Swanson, Fox's president of station operations. Swanson made his remarks following the luncheon panel “How Broadcasters Thrive in This Economic Climate,” moderated by B&C Executive Editor Melissa Grego, at NATPE in Las Vegas. “There's never been anything like this,” he added.

new strategies

To stay afloat while they wait out this year, broadcasters are employing different techniques and strategies to adapt to what they agree looks like a permanently lower revenue base. Ed Wilson, chief revenue officer of Tribune Broadcasting, said Tribune has merged the operations of CW affiliate WSFL Miami and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper; it plans to launch a local morning show in late March to take advantage of that synergy. “We think newspapers are most relevant in the morning.” Wilson said. “We think we have the opportunity to produce four hours of local TV that is different from the Today show, Good Morning America and The Early Show.”

Successful morning or late-night news and talk shows can be some of the most lucrative programs on any station or network schedule, as NBC well knows with Today and The Tonight Show. Fox has had success in recent years with its local Good Day franchise, especially in Los Angeles, although the company has been unable to convert that to national success. Both Good Day and The Morning Show With Mike and Juliet failed to make inroads in national syndication.

Tribune, which entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in December, also is training its local sales forces in what Wilson called “cross-selling,” or selling advertising across multiple Tribune platforms, including print, television, Internet, mobile and direct mail.

“We're trying to take advantage of everything we have,” Wilson said. “That's information and news and we'll see if it works.”

Fox, meanwhile, is continuing to focus on expanding its local newscasts while also being aggressive in acquiring new syndicated fare, as long as the price is right. Fox and NBC started Local News Service, essentially a “news-sharing” program, in Philadelphia to cover daybook types of news events, such as a mayor's news conference.

“It's not to take away exclusivity, but on certain standard items, do you need six or eight cameras there? I don't think so,” Swanson said.

Fox began the experiment last summer, and then turned it into a formal partnership at the beginning of this year, according to Swanson. Fox now is talking with stations about forming such partnerships in all of its markets.

Another way stations hope to increase their revenues is by instituting new networks on their digital subchannels. Last week, Weigel Broadcasting and MGM said it had added the Tribune, Raycom, Sunbeam and Quincy Newspaper station groups to its lineup for This TV, a digital network comprised largely of MGM's movie library. Stations that pick up the network are encouraged to localize it and use it to sell ads to more value-oriented advertisers. This TV is now cleared in more than 60% of the country.

“We need to get them up and running and promoted and see how they do,” Wilson said. “I take my hat off to Weigel in Chicago. We watch them every day, and we hope we can emulate them.”

DTV date: moving target?

One thing that stations say may hurt them economically is moving the digital transition date from Feb. 17 to June 12. At presstime, the effort to move the date was stalled after the House failed to follow the Senate's lead and approve a delay.

“As a company, whether we do it Feb. 17 or June 12 doesn't really matter,” said Brandon Burgess, chairman and CEO of Ion Media Networks. “My personal view is that the delay is largely misguided because you'll never have 100% readiness. You won't have it on Feb. 17 or June 12. It's unfortunate that so much money has gone into promoting a date that is now irrelevant.”