Viacom's Swanson Stands for Success


Dennis Swanson

Chief operating officer, Viacom Television Stations Group

When Dennis Swanson ran ABC-owned WLS Chicago and turned it into an Oprah-powered giant, maybe it was luck. But, when he switched to New York and NBC's flagship WNBC and did the same—with some other successes in between—the industry knew this was a guy who knows his business.

Now Swanson is going for the hat trick. One of TV's most renowned station generals, he is chief operating officer at the Viacom Television Stations Group, overseeing 20 CBS and 18 UPN stations that, with few exceptions, have been down so long it seemed part of the culture. Not since Swanson arrived, though.

Over the years, he has become something of a brand name himself. He has been characterized as a "gruff ex-Marine" so often the description is practically part of his name. His method—relying on raiding rivals for big-name on-air talent, promoting big-time community outreach, and finding market-savvy executives—is not exactly rocket science. But, throughout the industry, there a widespread suspicion that somehow Swanson knows how to execute it better.

"Many of the management principles that I learned came as a result of my military training," he says, citing the military's can-do attitude and its chain of command. "In the Marine Corps, the lieutenant takes care of the men and the women first. You see to it that they're cared for before you take care of yourself. That's not a bad principle."

Analysts and advertisers generally agree that a turnaround is under way. They give much of the credit to Swanson, who was hired by Viacom CEO Fred Reynolds two years ago.

WBBM Chicago illustrates the Swanson method in microcosm. There, General Manager Joe Ahern, a long-time Swanson protégé (Ahern was station manager when Swanson was general manager at WLS Chicago), lured Diann Burns, the market's most popular anchor, away from WLS, the ABC O&O that is the market's news leader.

When Swanson headed WNBC, the New York station specialized in sponsoring parades and other big local events with their own brand identities. In Chicago, WBBM is now one of the media sponsors for the local Columbus Day and St. Patrick's Day parades, as well as the Chicago Marathon, the Tall Ships festival, and a 125-mile bike race featuring Lance Armstrong.

In the mid '80s, he became head of the ABC Stations Group. Then, as head of ABC Sports, he persuaded the International Olympic Committee to "stagger" the Summer and Winter Games, creating the modern ad-sales and ratings bonanzas the Olympics have become. Swanson verily handed his old network its most valuable sporting asset.

The ultimate goal at Viacom, according to Swanson, is to become No. 1 in both ratings and revenues in the top six markets.

Still, Viacom has a way to go.

No one knows better than Swanson not to pop the Champagne until you win. Coming close doesn't really count, especially in the TV business. But Swanson's stations are moving up fast.