The industry’s biggest problem right now is not the tanking ad market, it’s the fact that TV broadcasting has no one on the national stage talking up the business as a vital source of local news and information, as a catalyst for getting moribund local economies moving again and as a good business that just happens to be going through tough times. ~~ Also not helping the industry is the fact that two of its most important advocates — the National Association of Broadcasters and the Television Bureau of Advertising — are leaderless. TVB will remedy that very soon, but the NAB looks to have a long way to go before naming a new CEO. Among those said to be on the NAB list of candidates: Len Kennedy, Howard Woolley, Andy Fisher, Kathleen Abernathy, Kurt Wimmer, Jim May, John Orlando and David Kennedy.
I made the rounds in Los Angeles last week, talking with syndication executives about their businesses and what kind of impact the TV stations’ financial meltdown was having on them. The answer was huge, as you might suspect.
But a lunch in Santa Monica took a surprising turn. The head of one distributor asserted that what the stations really needed was leadership, someone to sell, sell, sell the wonders of free, over-the-air television and to get the industry moving together in the right direction.
He was absolutely right.
Right now, TV broadcasting has no one on the national stage talking up the business as a vital source of local news and information, as a catalyst for getting moribund local economies moving again and as a good business that just happens to be going through tough times.
And it has no one out there setting the course for the business and unifying the station groups behind common causes.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, when cable went from nothing to something, it was fortunate to have both kinds of leaders: Ted Turner and John Malone.
Turner sold the medium to the public through his actions (the WTBS superstation and CNN) and his words. He drew a gaggle of reporters and cameras wherever he went and never disappointed. He loved to bash the still fat and happy broadcast networks and predict their demise. I remember his proud pose on a widely circulated poster proclaiming, “I was cable before cable was cool.”
John Malone was the guy that set the direction for the entire industry. He was instrumental is the founding of Cable Labs in 1988, a move that has generated enormous dividends for the industry. After Congress granted stations retrans rights in 1992, he put the word out that nobody was to do any cash deals with the stations. None did for more than a decade.
Broadcasting hasn’t seen any of their kind since Paley, Stanton and Sarnoff signed off.
I’m not sure why no one has emerged to succeed those giants.
Perhaps it’s because the business is long past the time when it attracted strong, entrepreneurial types like Turner and Malone. They were their own bosses and could say what they pleased without clearing it with HQ or fear of corporate retribution.
Or, perhaps, today’s top broadcasters feel it would be presumptuous to appoint themselves as the industry spokesman and savior. But that’s what leaders often do.
Or maybe it’s because broadcasters are simply too competitive. Broadcasters have such a tradition of knocking heads in the local markets that the idea of sharing strategies and ideas doesn’t come easy.
Of course, donning the leadership mantle carries the risk of not being followed.
A decade ago, Sinclair’s David Smith loudly warned that the ATSC’s 8-VSB transmission system was second rate. He was shouted down. From what I’m learning about the DTV reception these days, I’m beginning to believe he was right.
Seven years ago, when he was chairman of the Association of Maximum Service Television and CEO of LIN Television, Gary Chapman tried to convince his peers to fund an R&D lab on the model of Cable Labs. But he couldn’t muster enough support to make it happen. I know he was right. Just think of how much further the industry would be along on centralcasting and DTV if it had been working together on them.
The most likely leaders are the men who run the largest groups, the O&Os for the Big 4 broadcast networks, but none has shown the least inclination to step outside his office and take on a larger industry roll. Jack Abernethy (Fox), John Wallace (NBC) and Walter Liss (ABC) rarely even speak publicly on any topic.
This is not to say that broadcasting is without quieter, lead-by-example types.
Guys like Hearst’s David Barrett and Post-Newsweek’s Alan Frank carry on strong traditions and set high standards for what TV stations should be and what they should do for their communities. Their stations are a bulwark against those who want to mandate local programming.
Then there’s Nexstar’s Perry Sook. Four years ago, he decided he was going to do whatever it took to undermine the Malone mandate and squeeze retrans dollars out of the cable systems that carry his signals. He succeeded, others followed and tens of millions of extra dollars now flow into broadcast coffers as a result.
With his decision to stop subscribing to Nielsen a few years ago, Sook may have triggered another movement. Time will tell.
Ion Media’s Brandon Burgess deserves the praise of all broadcasters for taking the lead in the development of mobile DTV. By fathering the Open Mobile Video Coalition, Burgess has ensured that broadcasting will at least have a shot at being a big player in the burgeoning and youthful mobile marketplace.
Smart broadcast engineers like Media General’s Ardell Hill, Hearst’s Marty Faubell, Raycom’s Dave Folsom and Cox’s Sterling Davis are reinventing the way local TV broadcasting is done, stripping out much of the cost and helping their bosses cope with the dwindling revenue.
For the most part, the engineers willingly share what they know and what they do. But the know-how usually has to be drawn out by trade reporters and editors here at TVNewsCheck or elsewhere. None seek to speak out and lead.
These are trying times for broadcasting. Wall Street must be reassured, Washington must be cajoled, advertisers must be sold and broadcasters, from owners to entry-level news producers, must be inspired.
As they say in just about every football game I have ever watched on TV, it’s time for somebody to step up.
Speaking of leadership
Broadcasting’s leadership vacuum is exacerbated by the fact that two of its big trade associations are currently looking for new bosses.
The NAB has been without a president since the board eased David Rehr out in May and the top job at the Television Bureau of Advertising fell into lame duck status after Chris Rohrs announced in May that he wanted to move on to other things at the end of this year.
Both organizations said they wanted to have their new leader on board by Labor Day. Only TVB, it seems, will meet the goal.
TVB Chairman Frank Comerford told me yesterday that the board expects to announce the new president next week so that it can formally introduce him or her to the industry at the TVB Forecast Conference in New York on Sept. 10. TVB Executive Vice President Abby Auerbach is a candidate and, I would hope, the leading candidate. She’s earned the promotion.
From what our Washington correspondent Kim McAvoy and I can gather, the NAB search committee headed by Bonneville’s Bruce Reese has assembled a list of candidates thanks in large part to the scouting of its search firm, Russell Reynolds Associates. But it has not begun interviewing, which means it’s a long way from making a recommendation for the board, which means forget about Labor Day.
Washington types of the list include Leonard Kennedy, a former aide to FCC Commissioners Ervin Duggan and Patricia Diaz Dennis who now lobbies for Sprint Nextel; Howard Woolley, a one-time NAB lobbyist who is with Verizon Wireless in the same capacity; Jim May, former top NAB lobbyist now heading the Air Transport Association; John Orlando, a CBS lobbyist who left NAB after Rehr took over; former FCC Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy, who is now practicing law at Wilkinson Barker Knauer; and Kurt Wimmer, a partner at Covington & Burling and former general counsel at Gannett.
Two ex-broadcasters and former NAB board members are also said to be in the hunt: Andy Fisher, who retired as president of Cox Television at the end of last year, and David Kennedy, the former head of the Susquehanna radio group who is now CEO of FlyCast, a mobile technology provider.
Fisher is tight with the Television Operators Caucus, which has considerable clout on the NAB board, and Kennedy is a favorite of the radio crowd.
And some are still not counting out Steve Newberry, the NAB joint board chairman and search committee member, despite his protestations that he is not interested in the job. The Kentucky radio broadcasters told me last June that he “choked on a sandwich” when I first speculated in this column that he might take the job.
Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck.com. He can be contacted at [email protected]