Diane Sutter is taking the road less travelled at her small WZMY, hoping to make it in a top-10 market with a focus on hyperlocal programming. And while she acknowledges that life would be easier if WZMY were part of a duopoly with a Big 4 network affiliate, she also makes clear her determination to press on by teaming with others in the market, staying as local as she can and taking advantage of the opportunities inherent in digital.
Diane Sutter embarked on a bold experiment in 2004, entering the Boston market with a standalone, independent TV station and a business plan that called for attracting viewers and commensurate advertising dollars with what’s come to be called hyperlocal programming.
Now five years into the experiment, Sutter and WZMY are hanging in there, even though TV revenues in the market as a whole have steadily declined since she arrived and her competition keeps pressing in.
She is keeping a sharp focus on local goings-on and, in 2006, she was able to win the MNT affiliation from Fox. In the scramble for the affiliation, it helped that Sutter already had the MyTV moniker that Fox coveted.
Sutter earned the right to take her chance with WZMY. Prior to forming ShootingStar Broadcasting to buy and operate stations in 1996, she assembled a long resume in broadcast sales and station management that culminated with her running the TV station division of Roy Disney’s Shamrock Broadcasting. ShootingStar also owned the CBS affiliate in Abilene, Texas, for a spell.
In this interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Harry A. Jessell, Sutter acknowledges that life would be easier if WZMY were part of a duopoly with a Big 4 network affiliate, but she also makes clear her determination to press on by teaming with others in the market, staying as local as she can and taking advantage of the opportunities inherent in digital.
An edited transcript:
Boston has experienced something like 20 straight down quarters stretching back even before the general economic downturn. What’s going on up there?
Boston is one of two cities — San Francisco is the other — that has been challenged for a lot longer time. The factors challenging the markets could eventually affect other markets too.
Boston is the No. 2 cable-penetrated market in the country behind Honolulu. It’s the No. 1 wired market for the Internet and you have also got high socioeconomic factors. You’ve got well-educated people with money, even in these economic times. It means they have greater choices. So it’s a challenging time for the industry, but particularly for markets like San Francisco and Boston that have the demographic profile that they do.
You’re licensed to Derry, N.H., on the fringe of the Boston market. Do you fully feel a part of the market?
Well, where the transmitter and the studio site are is very different from the coverage that you provide to the market. About 96.3 percent of the Boston market is satellite and cable and fiber. So no matter where you are, you have the opportunity to reach the entire market. The challenge is covering the divergent interests in a market this size.
So the benefit of having high cable and penetrations is that it puts you on equal footing with the stations in the center of the market.
That is true.
Comcast is the dominant cable operator in the market. Are they aggressive in local sales?
Yes, they are. Plus, we have two 24/7 sports channels and a 24/7 news channel. So you have a number of other entities competing with your over-the-air broadcast channels.
Have you had to retreat from your original hyperlocal strategy?
We’ve never veered from our mission. We were MyTV before My Network TV existed. Our goal was to be a hyperlocal station that put viewers on the air and interact with viewers much the way a radio station does. We continue to attend the local folk and seafood festivals and we sponsor major community events. We’ve always have viewers on the air. They do our IDs, promos and the buffers going in and out of programming.
We also do these My shows — My Home and Garden, My Premiere Bride, My Favorite Restaurant, My Destination Cape Cod, My Destination Killington, all of which are 100-percent-local advertiser-driven shows, produced locally and aired locally.
And those are shows sponsored by the restaurants or destinations being featured.
They are. Actually, each of the segments is fully sponsored by the commercial outlet that we’re interviewing.
Now that you are five years into this, what have you learned about the hyperlocal approach?
We continue to believe that local is more than just news. It includes being out in the community and making your viewers part of the station. I don’t think we’ve changed our view on that at all.
What we’ve come to realize, however, is that your ability to be able to do this in a market the size of Boston is a bit more challenging than we thought. People have to drive two hours to go to an event. In a smaller market, it might be a half-hour drive. We understand that and we’ve learned to regionalize some of the things that we do.
So why did you give up on the news?
We came to realize that we have great competitors in this market that do a wonderful job in news. For us to do another newscast didn’t provide the market with anything different. We still have a very popular, well-known weatherman, Al Kaprielian. He’s the finest weather guy in the marketplace. He is out probably out three or four nights a week in the community.
We do weather every hour and weather, as you might imagine, is a pretty significant factor in a New England market. We get viewers involved. They send us pictures.
How has the economic downturn affected your strategy?
If you’re going to have local shows, they need to be supported by local advertisers and obviously the local advertising market has shrunk for the time being. So, we’re looking for other ways that we can do this. We now provide two-minute vignettes for some of our clients and air them during commercial breaks. We do lot of local production for our clients. We try to be a strategic partner as opposed to an advertising partner.
What’s your take on MNT these days?
I am actually really pleased with where the network is going and what they’re doing. If the first week of the season is any indication, we’re providing programming that the viewers really want to watch. We’ve seen huge jumps in our primetime ratings.
It’s branded programming. When you have as many channels with as many new shows as you have coming on the air, it’s tough to break through the clutter. We’re airing known, branded programming that viewers obviously want to watch.
Do you get any retrans money?
We are basically a must-carry station in the market, but we’re looking at adding a digital channel. We’re in conversations with various cable and satellite and fiber companies about carrying it.
I assume it’s one of the diginets. Which one?
We’re not at liberty to say at this moment. We expect to announce it probably within the next several weeks.
Are you a believer in mobile DTV?
Any time you can get your content to where the viewer needs it and wants it, that’s great.
So you will be among the broadcasters that will spend at least $50,000 to put up a DTV signal next year.
We will be among the broadcasters looking to take advantage of opportunities that can provide a return on investment to our viewers as well as to our investors.
Are your finances in good shape? Are you going to be able to weather this storm?
I’m not sure if anyone’s finances are in good shape. We would all hope for that, but I do believe that we’re maximizing the potential that exists in this economic environment and we’ve adjusted to allow for that.
You’re a standalone station in a big market. What kind of disadvantage does that put you at?
Certainly, the greatest opportunity in broadcasting is to have one of the top four networks as well as one of the other networks, a CW or a My. Among other things, that gives you the ability to do local programming that would be hard do if you were just an ABC, NBC or CBS. Would we like to be a part of that? Absolutely. It’s very difficult in this environment for a stand-alone CW or My Network to be able to maximize its potential.
So, what is your current strategy?
If we could find a partner, that would make the most sense. To be a part of a multiple platform, to combine the traditional with the nontraditional, to be able to maximize the potential and the resources that come with having two stations. If that would be possible, we would obviously look for that.
One of your avocations is the Broadcast Leadership Training Program, which provides professional education primarily for minority and women broadcasters looking to move up in the management ranks or acquire stations. How’s that going?
We are in our 10th anniversary year. We now have 156 graduates and another 14 in this class. Of those, 24 or 25 are owners and more than 30 percent of the graduates have been promoted since they participated in the program. We think it’s a way to continue to help create diversity in our business.
Did all 24 or 25 of the owners acquire stations after taking the course?
No. Some of them already owned a station, but they wanted to grow and learn how to do that. Or, they have just gotten a license and want to make sure they know how to maximize its potential. Others went out and acquired stations while they were still in the program. We have two owners in the current class.
If you were talking to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski right now, what would you tell him?
I would tell him that we look forward to the commission’s continued interest to increase diversity in the business and I would also tell him to find ways to encourage investment in the business and avoid regulatory disincentives and unintended consequences from commission actions.
Anything more specific in terms of rules that you want or would like to see disappear?
There’s obviously the question of multiple ownership, duopolies in smaller markets. Clearly, some of the smaller markets could benefit from that. Even thought it’s not a commission-specific action, we would also look and hope for the reinstatement of the tax certificate.
The tax certificate is intended to boost diversity in the ownership ranks. What other policies would you like to see to do that?
Women and minorities need to be able to compete on a level playing field and one of the concerns that I have is when we keep talking about creating lesser facilities as ways for women and minorities to get into the business. I’m not sure that that’s the best way to do that. Giving women and minorities the opportunity to own competitive signals gives them a chance to succeed.
So while it’s great to have low-power stations and things like that, you’ve got to be careful that the only opportunity you create for women and minorities is with lesser properties with lesser facilities.
Have you had a chance to meet the incoming NAB President Gordon Smith?
Yes, at the NAB Radio Show. I found him very engaging, very approachable — someone who appeared to be interested in taking an active role in our business. That’s a positive sign. With the credentials that he brings, he should be a strong advocate for all of the broadcasters on the Hill and at the FCC.