Fred Reynolds joked that, when he met Dennis Swanson, it was love at first sight. "He has a great philosophy, and an awesome track record."
What's more, "he's never not won," said Reynolds, president of Viacom's station group.
Reynolds had pursued the legendary WNBC(TV) general manager with considerable ardor. He jokes now that, to keep their meetings secret, they went on a virtual tour of New York's worst restaurants. Swanson proved susceptible to wooing, and without tipping his hand.
No sooner had Swanson retired from WNBC in July than he joined Viacom as executive vice president for its station group, which includes woefully weak CBS O&Os in major markets.
Speculation during the spring suggested he was increasingly dissatisfied with the NBC station group's moves toward centralized management. And the General Electric-owned group, either first or second in all the top markets, didn't appear likely to shift back toward more local control.
But the courtship of Dennis Swanson was only the beginning of a high-level recruiting frenzy beyond anyone's memory. When was the last time general managers at two of the Big Three O&Os in the nation's No. 1 market changed within days? But that wasn't all. Within weeks, all
the Big Three O&O news directors had changed in New York, as had four of Viacom's top-five-market GMs.
"I've been in television a long time," Swanson said recently. "I didn't need to sit around and think about this for six to 12 months. I thought we had to really attack the big markets, where there's so much at stake, where we're not as competitive as we should be. So we've got to get the best general managers possible and get them in place early."
He may not be done. He continues to look for the right people for the right jobs.
The new station managers may also make some additional moves. "I believe in delegation," Swanson said. "I don't intend to micromanage these stations."
"I've never seen a pace like this," says consultant and TV executive recruiter Tom Dolan, who was himself recruited to WLS-TV Chicago by Swanson in the 1980s "I don't think there's been a pace like this. The pace is nothing more than Dennis attacking the whole product," he adds.
Swanson's move caused a ripple of moves through the other networks' O&Os.
For instance, Lew Leone left WNBC (where he ran sales) to join Swanson and run WCBS-TV. He replaced Tony Pettiti, who first was moved into a group-management position, then to CBS Sports.
At WNBC, Frank Comerford was promoted to replace Swanson, leaving his post as executive vice president of sales and marketing for NBC stations.
Comerford then hired Mark Lund (son of former CBS executive Peter Lund) to become WNBC's vice president of sales. He had been sales manager for Viacom's Boston duopoly, WBZ-TV and WSBK-TV.
CBS sources say reports of "fill-in-the-blank" salary offers have been exaggerated. But compensation differences are only a drop in the bucket compared with the tremendous amount of money that can come from improved performance in a major market, they say: A single rating point for WCBS-TV in top-market New York can mean $5 million for the group.
Not all entreaties have been successful, notably those to WMAQ-TV General Manager Larry Wert, news executives Frank Whitaker and Vickie Burns, and Research Director Toni Falvo, all in Chicago.
But Swanson was able to put together a deal that brought Joe Ahern—who had been running ABC's San Francisco station KGO-TV and had shown no interest in filling Viacom's long-open slot at KPIX-TV there—back to Chicago, where he had worked with Swanson at WLS-TV.
When Carole Black, now president of Lifetime Television, was the general manager of KNBC(TV) Los Angeles, Swanson was her counterpart in New York, and she marvels, "I think Dennis Swanson understands every single area of the business, knows how to make a great station and drive it to the top."
Some at CBS had doubts that News Director Dianne Doctor would leave WNBC, the top shop in the top market, for WCBS-TV. But the combination of the challenge, additional compensation and Doctor's regard for Swanson sealed the deal. (Also, WNBC had brought in WABC-TV News Director Dan Forman as senior vice president of news and station manager, adding a layer of management at the station Doctor was leaving.)
NBC sources naturally downplay the exits and note that it has lost no experienced general managers. But, while NBC's bench has allowed it to fill recent big-market GM openings from its GM ranks—Linda Sullivan from WRC-TV Washington to KNTV(TV) San Francisco-San Jose, Michael Jack from WCMH-TV Columbus, Ohio, to replace Sullivan—Viacom was able to offer two top NBC sales execs GM jobs in major markets.
Viacom has filled GM jobs in four of its top-five markets from outside its group.