NATPE 2009: TV Stations Buckle Down in Tough Times

Look to news, operation sharing to keep costs down
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NATPE '09: Complete Coverage from B&C
In the toughest economic environment broadcast executives say they have ever seen, station managers are changing up business models, experimenting with programming and retraining sales staff to eke what revenue they can out of 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, president of Fox Station Operations, after a panel moderated by B&C Executive Editor Melissa Grego at NATPE in Las Vegas. “There’s never been anything like this.”

To stay afloat while they wait out this year, broadcasters are employing different techniques and strategies.

Ed Wilson, chief revenue officer of Tribune Broadcasting, said now that Tribune has merged the operations of CW affiliate WSFL and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, it plans to launch a local morning show in late March that takes advantage of that synergy.

“We think newspapers are most relevant in the morning. We think we have opportunity to produce four hours of local TV that is different from The Today Show, Good Morning America and the Early Show,” Wilson said.

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 platforms, including print, television, Internet, mobile and direct mail.

“What we’re trying to do is take advantage of everything we have,” said Wilson. “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.

To help keep costs down, Fox has instituted a “news-sharing” program at its station WTXF Philadelphia. Last summer, the station began teaming with NBC-owned WCAU 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, Swanson said. 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 sub-channels. Last week, Weigel Broadcasting and MGM said it had added the Tribune, Raycom, Sunbeam and Quincy Newspaper station groups to its line-up 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,” said Wilson. “I take my hat off to Weigel in Chicago. We watch them every day and we hope we can emulate them.”

One thing that stations say may hurt them economically is moving the digital transition date from Feb. 17 to June 12. At press time, the Senate had passed a bill that would change the transition date and the House was expected to pass its own version as well.

"As a company, whether we do it Feb. 17 or June 12 doesn’t really matter,” said Brandon Burgess, chairman and chief executive officer 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.”

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