Taking over the presidency of Meredith Television two years ago, O'Brien hit the ground running, drawing on observations about Meredith stations made over a five-month negotiation period and the names of people he had noticed over the years. At station after station, general managers were replaced at dizzying speed.
It had been no secret in the television industry that Kevin O'Brien wanted to run a station group. After 15 successful years overseeing a number of Cox Television stations—notably, powerhouse Fox affiliate KTVU(TV) San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose—he saw group head as the logical next step. He acknowledges coveting top group jobs at major groups and in particular at the Cox group itself. But, when that job went to Andrew Fisher, the logical next step would have to take him outside Cox. It did: It took him to Meredith.
"I was never a person that immediately began making changes in people," he says of his early moves. But "it became obvious to me that, if I was to move Meredith forward, I would have to make significant changes quickly."
Meredith, says O'Brien, "didn't have an acceptable news and marketing culture. They weren't enough of a priority at the stations necessary to grow the group. At KTVU, I'm most proud of the news and marketing operation. It's without question the finest at Cox, and Cox is the best group there is. Meredith has tremendous potential: good markets and good stations, but they're underperforming."
He'd like to keep his executive team together, he says, although, "if I make the changes and things don't improve, shame on me." So far, though, "every station is up dramatically" in profits, revenue and ratings, O'Brien says. And if his new hires are the right ones, he hopes to move his group toward the kind of elite status that he believes keeps a team together.
"If I had my druthers, I would not make changes. Stability is one of the secrets of the best companies." And the best companies, he says, "are Hearst, Belo and Cox." That kind of rarified air "is something I had for 15 years. But my time at Cox served me well, and I'm trying to model the Meredith group after Cox."
It hasn't been a smooth ride. The revelation last year that at least one Meredith station had used compression technology to squeeze programming and add more commercial spots was an obvious bump. Even so, O'Brien says, his relationship both with the networks and with advertisers have never been better. "I make it my business to become familiar with and work hard with our advertisers. We're affiliated with four networks, and I'll bet my picture is up somewhere at every one of them for the increased ratings and value I have brought to them."
Within weeks of the time-machine controversy, addressing an industry conference in Washington, O'Brien noted the recent attention as he launched into a critique of what he considers complacency among many of his peers in the tactful, understated style for which he's known: "Wimps!" he called them.
O'Brien believes that local television has allowed itself to be exploited by syndicators, networks, cable operators and sports interests. "We've sat back over the years and, through fear or lack of interest, allowed numerous competitors and other interests to lap us and grab the momentum.
"We've been pushed around," he continues. "Cable has made more out of a 0.5 rating than anyone in the history of television, a sparkling job convincing Madison Avenue that they're the hot medium. But, year after year, it's obvious by the ratings that over-the-air television is still the dominant entity in each market. We have the most powerful tools: localism and distribution. We have to regain control of our business."