Sullivan Flexes KNTV's Muscle

Station president/GM sees current post as grand experiment

Linda Sullivan's eclectic journey through the local-broadcast industry has been ideal training for her current challenge: building NBC's new San Francisco station, KNTV.

From an account executive at WJAR Providence, R.I., to station chief at WRC Washingtion during the life-altering 9/11 crisis, Sullivan has mastered the art of station operations.

Still, she accepted the KNTV post with some trepidation. NBC acquired KNTV in spring 2002 for $230 million and has been building the station, a former independent serving Monterey-Salinas, into its Bay Area outlet. The purchase was sparked by a showdown with KRON owner Young Broadcasting, which had recently acquired the station. KRON had been an NBC affiliate for more than four decades, but Young bristled at demands to pay $10 million a year to carry its programming. Young even tried to sell KRON to NBC.

Instead, on Jan. 1, 2002, the network switched the affiliation to Granite Broad­casting's KNTV, which offered $30 million a year in reverse compensation. Shortly after that, NBC bought the station and recruited Sullivan to run its brand-new O&O in the sixth-largest TV market.

New challenges

Sullivan wondered whether NBC would provide the station with critical support. Plus, viewers in the sprawling Bay Area were trained to tune to KRON for NBC fare. KNTV was a small-market operation that needed major upgrades. Such challenges, she says, decided her fate: “This was an opportunity to put together everything I've learned in my local-broadcast career and do this grand experiment.”

Although she has 30 years of experience to draw on, the seasoned broadcaster fell into the industry. After college, the English major returned East. Sullivan interviewed for various jobs, but prospective employers were chiefly interested in how fast she could type. The answer: slowly.

So after an intensive typing course in Boston, Sullivan landed a job as a sales assistant at WHDH Boston and quickly climbed the ranks in research and sales. Her first big deal was an ad buy with South Shore Bank. “I thought this was the business for me,” she says.

After a stint at national-ad-sales firm Telerep, Sullivan landed a national sales job at WJAR and rose to general manager. The station was, and is, a market leader, but Sullivan initiated several big improvements during her 12-year tenure. She moved operations from downtown and bought The Oprah Winfrey Show for afternoons. A sales vet, she schooled herself in the technology and news departments.

In 1997, NBC lured her to WRC, another strong NBC O&O. There, Sullivan got a taste of major-market news and business. On 9/11, “I learned a lot about courage,” she says. “The newsroom forgot about their fears and continued to do their jobs.”

Those moments, she says, prepared her to take the reins at KNTV. “Here, I'm building something instead of shoring up an operation.” Fortunately, she says, Granite Broadcasting laid solid groundwork. With NBC's help, it heavily marketed the over-the-air switch from channel 3 to channel 11. The 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, carried by NBC, was an opportunity to promote the station. And the campaign worked: KNTV was a top-rated NBC station for the Games.

When Sullivan arrived, she pushed the transition even further. “We needed someone who could really welcome new employees and set a course to help us win in this market,” says Jay Ireland, president of the NBC station group. “After a small market and then Washington, she had the skills for a large news-oriented market like San Francisco.”

Among the job's challenges, Sullivan says, is serving the viewing area's vast constituency. “It is important that our loyal South Bay viewers don't feel disenfranchised, but we have to be relevant to Marin County, Oakland and San Francisco, too,” she says. “This area is ethnically and geographically diverse.”

Local coverage

The station juggles news coverage across the market and balances the public-affairs initiatives it sponsors. New technology makes it easier. During last fall's election, KNTV developed “political postcards,” a series of reports from 45 neighborhoods across the market. Over two weeks, the station highlighted election issues for each locale. “It was a deep local service and a production triumph,” says Sullivan, who is building KNTV's news ops. In January, its 11 p.m. news was top-rated in the key 25-54 demo for the fourth consecutive month.

At present, Sullivan is presiding over two major building projects. KNTV recently moved into a new digital facility with sister Telemundo station KSTS. KNTV is also erecting a new tower and strengthening its signal to reach some 400,000 homes that can't receive it over the air.

Future powerhouse

As for Sullivan, the lifelong East Coaster is learning the pleasures of West Coast living. She and her husband are avid hikers, and Sullivan has taken up yoga. The physical discipline aids mental concentration, prepping her for her next goal: making KNTV a powerhouse.

“WJAR and WRC were boomer, successful stations,” she says. “KNTV will very soon join those ranks.”