Valari Dobson Staab’s office at 30 Rock, high atop Manhattan, feels more than a little like Mission Control. Feeds from the NBC and Telemundo owned stations Staab oversees play continually on a single (read: really big) wallmounted screen, allowing the groups’ president to keep track of her charges.
Yet in the five years since she became president of the NBC Owned Stations, adding the Telemundo stations to her purview along the way, Staab has hardly been about top-down rule. Rather, throughout her tenure, which started after Comcast bought NBCU, Staab has focused on giving individual stations the resources they need—more staff, new studios and state-of-the-art helicopters among them—to grow from the ground up. As a result, NBC and Telemundo owned stations today are airing unprecedented amounts of local news, building I-teams and partnering on consumer advocacy. For her achievements, B&C and the TVB have selected Staab as Broadcaster of the Year. She will receive the honor at the TVB Forward Conference on Sept. 29.
Staab spoke with B&C contributing editor Diana Marszalek about reinvigorating TV newsrooms, the rise of Spanish-language TV stations and what it means to be a broadcaster in 2016. An edited transcript follows.
At your five-year mark, are the TV stations where you hoped they would be?
I feel good about where we are. The stations improved probably faster than I would have predicted in this tough local news environment that we’re in. We had a core of really good people at these stations— they just didn’t have the resources and support they needed. Several of our stations were wildly understaffed— WTVJ in Miami, WNBC, KNBC. So it was getting them people and trucks and helicopters and all the resources that had been really cut back. Part of that, too, was building new facilities and new set-ups. KXAS in Dallas is in a new facility, KNBC is in a new facility, WCAU and WWSI in Philadelphia are moving into the new Comcast building downtown and several Telemundo stations have been rebuilt. They took everything they wanted and ran with it.
How did that translate into the stations producing newscasts people watch?
One of the bigger things we did was move quickly to put in investigative units in the NBC stations. With all cutbacks, a lot of the stations had lost a lot of seasoned reporters and that obviously hits very hard in newsrooms. We moved immediately to get enterprise journalism going back in the newsroom, which was not just about breaking news but helping to redevelop a culture of enterprise journalism in the newsroom. That really worked. It was a fast way to get people to change. Reporters would see other people breaking stories and they wanted to do that. And the investigative reporters we hired were seasoned investigative reporters who helped out our less experienced reporters. They know their markets, they know what questions to ask. The units gave us people to go to with big, breaking stories and do the kind of journalism that includes digging that will likely lead to advancing a story, not just covering it.
And on the Telemundo side, we rolled out a consumer investigative unit, which I felt would be the fastest way for the Telemundo stations to reconnect with their viewers. Spanish-language viewers are much more dependent on their TV stations than those watching English-language TV because we help them to interpret the world that’s primarily in English. With Telemundo Responde, viewers are never more than a text or phone call away from getting help. And we actually have helped them. We have recovered almost $5 million for viewers since we started in 2014. We are rolling it out to the NBC stations too. In the 18 months since it launched on those stations, we have gotten a couple million dollars.
We basically never get a call or an email that we don’t respond to. This is not just a tip line. We have a big consumer unit in Dallas that answers consumer complaints from all over the country. The team is doing nothing but solving consumer problems all the time. People are assigned to specific markets and give us feedback on situations that have wider implications— if there is a scam, a national trend. Some rise to the occasion of becoming on-air stories. Day in and day out they are just solving a ton of small issues. But they are obviously developing relationships with the viewers. You would think because it is so easy to have access to phones that it would be easy for people to call a company and resolve an issue, but for some reason it has become harder not easier. When we make the call, we actually speak to a person and solve the problem for them.
Are the initiatives working?
What I told the stations when I first started was that in this tough news environment, where people have a lot of choices and sources for news, we have to stand out. And we really have to be No. 1 or No. 2 in our markets. One of the things I am proudest of is how many stations have moved forward in five years. When I took over, 51% of our NBC stations’ major newscasts were No. 1 or No. 2 in their markets, and now 71% are.
In several markets, where there may be only two Spanish-language stations doing local news, Telemundo stations were way behind Univision. In Los Angeles, Univision was very dominant and now KVEA wins at 11 p.m. quite a bit. KVEA is just an excellent station, and they do great work. But the Spanish-language stations were not serving viewers in weather, which is the No. 1 reason Spanish-speaking viewers watch English-language television. So we have given them the same weather resources that the NBC stations have. A lot of the weathercasters weren’t meteorologists. Now we have some going to school, and when we have an opening we hire a meteorologist.
Our Telemundo stations used to not break into programming with news, now they do. And we have added more news. Forever, Spanish-language stations have had a 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscast. We now have a 5:30 p.m. newscast, and are starting to add news at 5 p.m. We are building out everything that we do in both station groups so that the Telemundo stations get everything our English-language stations do. I think we have really rebuilt those stations from the ground up and they are really incredible stations now. Overall, the Spanish- language viewer is being much better served. The viewers are younger. The viewers are a very attractive group of consumers who are very engaged in the world. And for us, they are an excellent group to have a grounded relationship with.
How much collaboration is there between Telemundo and NBC stations?
If they are a duopoly, then they have one giant newsroom. They may have separate news directors, but they all have one assignment desk with people from both the English- and Spanish-launguage stations on it. It’s been just as good for the NBC stations as it has for Telemundo stations. When we had a gas explosion here in New York, a Telemundo reporter was standing two blocks away and went live on WNBC. Almost all the Telemundo stations are bilingual, and as a division, we put a higher value on having staff that is bilingual. That way you can get everybody out and in different places and we can boost our coverage over bigger geography. It lets our operations have more boots on the streets.
Between recently wrapping up the Olympics and elections nearing, your newsrooms must be on overdrive.
The Olympics is such a huge event that we wanted to make sure we were covering every athlete and every special athlete our audience would want to see. We sent 40 people this year to Rio and they worked so hard. It sounds fun, and it is fun, but oh my God, it is hard work. Their mission was to keep up with the athletes from their home markets, and we sent Telemundo reporters too.
Same thing with the elections. I had a lot of people, anchors from the stations in for the candidates’ forum on Sept. 7, and we sent a lot of the local groups to the convention. We and NBC News rely on each other. We get a story started and they take it to the next level. But I like to remind NBC News that all news is local when it breaks.
What do you consider the group’s biggest accomplishments since you came on board?
Two of the stations have gotten Peabody Awards. A couple have had national Emmys.
But more importantly they have changed laws, made their communities better places—and I am very proud of investigative units that have done that. They started breaking stories and making a difference within months of launching, and that surprised me. We didn’t have to be patient.
We also rolled out Clear the Shelters across the entire division which has been wildly successful. Our Dallas station started Clear the Shelters as an effort to educate people and find homes for animals in area shelters. This year we found homes for 53,000 animals. Many of the NBC affiliates also joined in, so it was not just our stations but NBC and Telemundo affiliates around the country. I feel like that is something that makes a difference in a community but it also saves lives of the animals. It also shows the power of English and Spanish languages to reach broadly together across markets.
Tell us about the initiatives that have not been as successful as the others.
Nothing really comes to mind as a horrible failure. We have just been learning more about what does and doesn’t work. But one thing I have tried to do in the last five years is take away the stigma of failure. I want people to feel free to experiment. We have had digital failures, like a feature or an app, but I don’t want people to get hung up on whether it worked or not because we constantly have to be innovating. This is not brain surgery. We haven’t killed anyone, so if something doesn’t work we can correct it.