The president of the Fox O&Os has seen it all and is still looking for that next show or innovation to give his stations a competitive edge.
It’s a good bet that more rank-and-file, call-letter-laden TV broadcasters have worked for Dennis Swanson than any other person, living or dead.
The 68-year-old Swanson’s four-decade career in the business includes stints as the head of the ABC TV stations and the CBS TV stations. And now, of course, he is president of station operations of the Fox stations, reporting to CEO Jack Abernethy and Chairman Roger Ailes.
Swanson’s current challenge spans 35 Fox owned-and-operated stations in 24 markets, including duopolies in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
The networks have changed and the pace has accelerated, but Swanson continues to do what he has always done—meld the best talent and programming he can find into the highest ratings he can get.
In this edited interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Harry A. Jessell, Swanson says that the stations’ new news-and-information strategy is beginning to pay off, explains his latest syndication moves and lets it be known that he intends to be around for the excitement (and advertising bounty) of the 2008 presidential campaigning.
How is the news-and-information strategy working out?
I’d say our stations are doing extremely well. We had a good November, even though most people recognize that the Fox network did not have a strong primetime this past November. What we’re doing is putting a lot of emphasis on building our local news product and it seems like that has paid dividends for us.
Can you talk about that a little bit? What have you done to step things up at your stations?
What we’re trying to do is expand our news operations. Not all the Fox stations have had complete news complements. A lot of them did not rely on news in the past so we have been in the news expansion phase. We’ve added I think almost 70 hours of news and we’re just under a thousand hours a week now.
Where we’ve expanded the news, we’ve seen success with it. It’s not just a couple of markets. We’re now 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. in every one of our Fox markets. If you look at the 18-to-49 and the 25-to-54 demos in our 24 markets in the November book, you’ll find that our 5-to-9 block was No. 1. On election night, we actually won the 10 o’clock hour in those markets.
We don’t have early evening news in all of our markets, but we’re working on that, too. We’ve put a 5 o’clock news on in Minneapolis and we’ve put a 5 o’clock news on in Orlando and we’ve just put a 5 o’clock news on in Philadelphia.
What have you done other than expand the number of hours?
We’ve also improved the look in a lot of our newscasts—the sets, the graphics—at a considerable expense. We’ve worked to create a better exchange of materials among our stations. We’ve worked with the Fox News Channel and NewsEdge to improve our delivery systems for news product. I have to give Sharri Berg [senior vice president, news operations] a lot of the credit for that. She’s done a great job coordinating those activities. Rich O’Brien [senior vice president, creative director, Fox News Channel] has also done a great job.
We’ve had pretty good talent. Where we’ve needed to improve it, we’ve tried to do that. We’ve brought our news directors together and outlined some things that we think we needed to do. We’ve developed an Internet strategy, which I think the division was behind in. I don’t want this to sound self serving. It’s been a cooperative effort by a lot of people.
Where else are we going to see news at 5?
That would be telling our competitors across the street what we’re up to. I want to be a little bit careful with that information.
Fox has rolled out HD news in Cleveland and Philadelphia. What are the plans for the other stations?
We know that February of ’09 is coming and we’re just gearing ourselves towards the deadline that was established by the government.
But you don’t see HD as a competitive advantage, a way to get out ahead of your competition?
I think that maybe it wasn’t, but that it’s probably becoming more so. As more people get the sets, the fact of the matter is that HD will become an advantage. I want to go about it in an intelligent fashion, taking into consideration all the things that we have to do. We’re headed in that direction as quickly as capital expenditures will allow us to get there.
To what extent is the news-and-information strategy driven by the dearth of great syndicated product, either first-run or off-net?
The reality is, the sitcom strategy that some of our stations have had just can’t continue. The product isn’t there. In ’08, there aren’t any sitcoms coming out to speak of. So, if you’re going to stay with a sitcom strategy, I’m not sure where that leads. The more of your own programming destiny you can control, the better off you are going to be, particularly financially.
What are you going to do about My Network Television? Those telenovelas didn’t work out.
Well, that’s another interview for you. Greg Meidel was just hired as the president of My Network TV. He’s a good guy and a very knowledgeable guy. You will see changes in the program schedules as early as March and we just have to do a better job in making people aware of what My Network TV is and what the programs are and make the programs such that they’ll want to watch.
Any suggestions? You have a seat at that table.
That’s not my primary job. I have a thought or two and I’ve shared those with Greg at NATPE. We’re dear friends, and have worked together in the past. Over a glass of wine we talked about some things, but anything in that regard should come from him.
You came out of NATPE with this new TMZ celebrity-news strip from Warner Bros. What are your plans for it?
What we liked about it was that it has an Internet component. We didn’t just buy a television show, we also bought Internet content. It’s the No. 1 entertainment Web site right now. They’ve really done a great job. That was really what had appeal to us.
And where will that go on your schedules?
We’ll be doing our budget meetings here at the end of March, first of April, so we’re still working on program schedules, getting ready for that. We’ll give TMZ quality time periods because we have a strong belief that this is the kind of show that should capture some ratings and, as I say, we like the Internet component.
Generally speaking, do you know what daypart it’s likely to appear?
It will run at different time periods in different stations. That’s what we’re sorting out now. It will run in access on some of our stations I assume and it will run after late news on other stations. If we double run it, it will probably run in other time periods as well. So, there’s no blanket answer. It isn’t just going to be an access show or late night. It will play in stations’ schedules where we think we can do some good with it, but it will get good time periods.
And then you picked Temptation to bolster daytime on the MNT stations?
Yes. That’s Fox syndicated. We’re trying to build the My Network stations’ programming back. We like this show because again it involves some of the new technologies.
Were you disappointed with the opening of The Morning Show with Mike and Juliet?
Oh, not at all. Right now the emphasis is on the show. The ratings will be what they’ll be. We are very happy with the look of the show. The talent is good. They’ve work together before with a lot of energy and that’s really what our focus is right now. Our GMs love the show and it fits with our strategy. We want to extend the news-information brand.
Also, keep in mind that wasn’t a national rating. It was a rating for 24 of our stations. And it’s not an easy time period. You’ve got the Today Show in there and Regis and Kelly there in a lot of markets.
Was there anything else at NATPE that you were looking for?
I wanted to get a Dick Robertson bobblehead doll. That was the biggest priority I had.
But you passed on his—or I guess it’s now Ken Werner’s—Celebrity Jury show. How come?
We like the show. But we have a lot of court already. I mean we have Judge Judy in many of our stations and then we have the Fox court shows, Divorce Court, Judge Alex and Cristina. Warner Bros. did a nice job with it, but it just wasn’t the right fit for us at this point in time.
So you’re pretty much set syndication-wise?
We’re always looking at product. Even if we had a set hand, you still look at everything to see if somebody has got a better idea or something that you can improve yourself with. So I would never not want to see whatever people are bringing out or what the latest program idea is. We’ll never be set. I mean I don’t think there is anybody in television that could say that.
There have been reports that Murdoch wants in on the Tribune deal. What are you going to do if Murdoch picks up a bunch of Tribune stations?
There’s this funny thing called a [ownership] cap. And we’re at it. I think that’s probably my answer.
I understand, but you could tuck a few duopolies in here or there, couldn’t you?
You know what, bigger and better minds will figure out the buying strategies. I’m just trying to make the ones we have as good as they can be. If I can help do that then I’ve done my job.
Do you like the idea of having duopolies?
I don’t know that anybody has got the definitive primer on duopoly television yet. The one thing that a duopoly does is it gives you programming issues, but those issues turn into opportunities. In New York, for example, Fox is able to make a deal with the Yankees because we had a duopoly. Otherwise it wouldn’t have happened. That’s an example of using your duopoly strength.
Yeah, there are economies. There are some things that you can do efficiently in regards to both stations, but I don’t know that anybody really has totally sorted out the right duopoly strategy. Of course, right now it would help if we were stronger in primetime on the duopoly stations. That’s something that’s a concern of ours. We hope Greg and the L.A. people can do some things and make it better.
The culture at Fox—how does it differ from that at CBS or NBC?
I must say I think we have some tremendous advantages here at Fox. I think we have the best broadcast model in the business—four hours local in the morning, a 10 o’clock primetime news when people are clearly going to bed earlier, a solid primetime in this part of the year, great sports product.
This is a good company and I think it’s fun to be here. We get the resources we need to do our job. I’m not saying that wasn’t the case in the other places, but I like our circumstances at Fox and I’m happy I’m here. I’ve known Roger Ailes for a long time and we’ve been good friends and it’s fun to work in a division that ultimately reports to him. In this past year, I’ve worked very closely with Jack Abernethy and he’s been a great boss to me and so I think this is a good circumstance for me.
I get the sense that Fox is a little bit quicker on it’s feet than the other guys.
We have to be agile and we’ve talked about it here internally. This business has changed more in the last six or seven years than it has changed in the first 40 I was in it. I mean we went through a change there in the mid-’80s and then it sort of flattened out again. But, boy, it just has changed rapidly in these last five six seven years. You’ve got to be moving pretty quick because this is a much tougher business now than it used to be.
By my count, you’re running out of networks to work for.
Well, on March 15 I’ll be 69 years old. I’ve done this for a long, long time and it’s still fun. I’m enjoying my time here at Fox and I’ve got a very good work situation. As long as my health holds up and I think I can make a contribution, I’m glad to work. I think ’08 is going to be a fascinating year because of all the politics and I sort of wanted to be around for all the excitement. Come ’09, when I’m 71, maybe it will be time to slow down a bit and change my life’s course. I sort of targeted the summer of ’09 as saying that’s when I should reevaluate.
You know, I don’t want to stay around too long. I don’t want to be one of those guys they whisper about in the corridor. The business has been great to me. I have no complaints. For a kid out of central Illinois that put himself through the University of Illinois and served in the Marine Corps and then came into this business, I’ve been very, very fortunate. I have had a great run. It’s not going to go on forever. I know that, but I do hope my health holds out so I can get through ’08.