Valari Staab, a longtime ABC local broadcaster who was hired away to lead the NBC Owned Television Stations, is reinventing the group through a four-pronged strategy of bigger budgets and staff for better, stronger newscasts; better promoting those newscasts and stories; increased local autonomy; and otherwise recharging the non-network daytime schedule.
Local News Is Driver For NBC O&O Revival
Last year when Comcast was trying to convince regulators to allow it to acquire a controlling interest in NBCUniversal, executives insisted that they were committed to broadcasting and restoring NBC to its former place atop the Nielsen charts.
They have not accomplished that yet (they’ve been in charge only 10 months), but they are trying, most certainly at NBC’s string of 10 big-market TV stations whose ratings and reputation have fallen along with those of NBC primetime.
At a time when most other TV station groups are still keeping a tight lid on costs, the new owners are pumping “tens of millions of dollars” into the O&Os, says Valari Staab, a longtime ABC local broadcaster who was hired away from KGO San Francisco last spring by NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke and NBC Broadcasting Chairman Ted Harbert to lead the turnaround.
According to Staab, president of the NBC Owned Television Stations, those millions are going into greatly expanding news, shoring up neglected news infrastructure, generating more enterprise reporting, better promoting newscasts and stories and otherwise recharging the non-network daytime schedule.
Most telling, the group is in the process of hiring 130 new employees, mostly reporters, producers and photographers, but also a slew of creative services pros. Once completed, NBC stations will have boosted its head count by more than 5% to around 2,100.
So, can Staab and her fortified regiment of broadcasters produce the return that her bosses are looking for?
“I absolutely think we can,” she says during an interview in her sixth floor corner office at 30 Rock, NBC’s landmark New York City headquarters. “We didn’t get here overnight, it’s not going to get markedly better overnight, but if we can get these stations good, solid news operations and market it correctly, we can make these stations competitive fairly quickly and then eventually strong.”
The most visible manifestation of NBC’s investment has been new newscasts popping up at stations, particularly in the middle of the day. Since August, it had added 10 in eight markets:
- An hour-long newscast at 5 p.m. on flagship WNBC New York.
- A 30-minute noon newscast on KNBC Los Angeles.
- A 30-minute noon newscast on WMAQ Chicago.
- Two 30-minute newscasts on WCAU Philadelphia, one at 4:30 a.m. and one at 11 a.m.
- A 30-minute newscast at 11 a.m. on KNTV San Francisco.
- A 30-minute newscast at 11 a.m. on KXAS Dallas.
- A 30-minute noon newscast on KNSD San Diego.
- Two hours of news on weekend mornings on WTVJ Miami.
The 10 newscasts works out to an extra 1,100 hours of news per year, Staab says. By NBC’s count, those hours swell to more than 2,200 if you count newscasts at stations and at local Nonstop multicast channels added after Comcast’s takeover in January, but before Staab’s arrival in June.
Comcast promised regulators thousands of additional hours of local news at the NBC stations and at its Telemundo Spanish-language group, but Staab says she is pushing for more and better news not to please Washington, but because it’s the key to reviving the stations.
“In this day and age, to be competitive, you have got to be enterprising stories. You have got to be breaking news, you have got to be adding to the stories that you cover. You can’t just cover the daybook. You have got to hold people accountable at companies and in government.”
To support the expanded news efforts, NBC is building new studios or sets in four markets (New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Miami), establishing new investigative or consumer news units in five (New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, San Francisco and Hartford, Conn.), upgrading its fleet of ENG vehicles, purchasing 20 new cameras and restoring helicopters to WNBC and KNBC.
And to make sure viewers are well aware of all that’s new, Staab has restored the promotions department at all 10 stations to full strength. Under the prior regime, promotions had been centralized in New York and each station had just one promotions person. In the new order, there will be between three and five.
Staab and the NBC stations are retreating slightly on one front.
With WNBC in the lead in 2009, the group began rolling out local news-and-information multicast channels in each of its markets. By the first of this year, it had four of the local Nonstop channels up and running — in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington. Then, in May it said it would launch three more — one for Dallas, one for Miami and one encompassing Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego. That’s seven Nonstops covering every market but Hartford.
Now, according to Staab, the plan is to create one national Nonstop channel using some of the local programs created for the original local channels and allowing for local news insertion. “We are going to take a look at what everybody is doing and see what we think will make it on the national network and what we think is too local.”
Staab says a formal announcement of the new strategy and of an executive to run the national Nonstop channel could come this week.
Staab understands that news doesn’t stand alone, that its success is often tied to what comes before and after on the schedule. At KGO, her evening news for years enjoyed a strong lead-in from The Oprah Winfrey Show. Her NBC stations don’t have Oprah, but neither do any of her competitors. Oprah quit broadcasting last May to work on her cable network, OWN, in concert with Discovery Communications.
Staab has taken the first step toward strengthening the daytime lineup, signing up for NBCUniversal Domestic Television Distribution’s syndicated talk show Steve Harvey for fall of 2012. She’s not yet sure where it will fit in, possibly 2 p.m. or 3 p.m. “Our stations definitely wanted him because we need a broader appeal in daytime and we think he can bring that.”
Staab says she has her eye on two other syndicated talkers: one from CBS Television Distribution featuring Jeff Probst, the host of CBS’s primetime Survivor; the other from Twentieth Television starring Ricki Lake, who has been raising her profile lately with some high-scoring performances on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars.
Prior to Staab’s arrival, the NBC stations decided to revamp their station websites, shucking their lifestyle format and returning to a more conventional news-and-information approach.
Although Staab wasn’t part of that decision, she says that it fits with her vision for stations with dynamic 24/7 news operations. “The reason I encouraged … [the stations] to bring back midday newscasts wasn’t because we would make a fortune off of them,” she says. “It was to keep that newsroom going all day long. It is too big of a break between 7 a.m. and 5 or 6. The newsroom isn’t armed and ready for breaking news or breaking weather. A station does a better overall job of news if it keeps that wheel going.”
The stations’ news departments produce most of the content for their websites. But a group-level, all-things-digital operation headed by Greg Scholl, president, local integrated media, supplies the platform and technical support and supplements the local content. “They will jump in when something is going on in a market and flesh it out and then they provide overnight and weekend coverage,” Staab says.
During Hurricane Irene in August, the Scholl team was “very busy” generating content for the four markets in the path of the storm —Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Hartford. “We streamed all the coverage and tried to put as much ancillary information to help people as we could,” Staab says.
The new direction of the websites, along with technical upgrades that have improved compatibility with mobile devices and facilitated sharing via social media, seem to be working. In August, the sites attracted 16 million unique visitors, an increase of 33% from August 2010.
Staab spent her entire broadcasting career at ABC, the last nine as GM of KGO, and she has brought the ABC station management philosophy with her. That is, in her words, “hire good people and let them do their job.”
The autonomy that the stations now enjoy is new, she believes. Under her predecessor, she says, “I think it was much heavier, top-down. There were a lot of things that they had to at least run by corporate. The culture that I am trying to create now is that the general manager and the department heads run their stations and we’re here to help.”
Evidence of the decentralized approach is Staab’s small New York team. In addition to Scholl, it includes Therese Gamba, SVP, marketing; Tina Silvestri, SVP of operations; Dave Crossen, SVP of human resources; Christine Dorfler, chief financial officer; Cathy Forrest, VP of research; and Shawn Feddeman, VP of communications.
Also reporting to Staab is the national spot sales operation headed by Chief Revenue Officer Frank Comerford, a well-known former GM of WNBC.
Last month, Staab hired Steve Carlston, the GM of the CBS affiliate in Salt Lake City, to run KNBC. But the move was precipitated by the promotion of GM Craig Robinson into the NBCUniversal corporate ranks as EVP and chief diversity officer.
Staab is not saying whether she plans to switch out any of her other GMs for performance, one of the ways new group owners and CEOs have typically made their marks. “In all honesty, that’s part of the reason I am visiting the stations and coming to know [the GMs], because they have been under-resourced and their focus has been in a different directions.
“I have changed a lot of things in the five months I have been there. They’re getting the resources and the focus. Now is when I can really take a look at them and see what they can do with those.”
Despite the promise of autonomy, Staab retains her prerogative to step in when she thinks it is necessary.
To save money, Staab’s predecessor, John Wallace, cut a deal with Fox in several markets to share newsgathering crews and helicopters. It was a controversial move that some perceived as NBC conceding that it was no longer able to compete for first place in its markets.
Staab says she is leaving it to the GMs to decide whether they want to maintain those relationships. But, she says, she felt strongly that the two biggest stations in the group, WNBC and KNBC, should at least have their own helicopters so she mandated it. “There’s just too much in the market that has to be covered by helicopters.”
The restoration of the creative services departments may have something to do with the fact that Staab came out of that end of the business. Before managing stations for ABC in Fresno, Calif. (KFSN), and Raleigh-Durham, N.C. (WTVD), she spent a decade in Philadelphia (WPVI) as director of marketing and research and director of creative services.
News needs smart promotion, she says. “We spend millions of dollars on each of these TV stations promoting ourselves on our own air and so you need a team that’s filling the time with targeted marketing messages.”
The New York-centric system simply wasn’t working, she says. “What had happened was the topicals had been taken over by the news department. One minute you ask a journalist to write a very straightforward concise linear story and then the next minute to turn around and tease a newscast in a way that might get someone’s attention and hold them. That’s really not fair and not usually productive.
“So this moves all of the topicals back to the promotional departments so that the journalists can write the good stories and the promotion people can worry about marketing the product.”
The other problem with centralizing promotions is that each station has its own history, traditions and market identity that has to infuse the promotions, she says. “It’s hard to transfer all of that knowledge to a group in New York.”
It’s way too early to assess the impact of any of Staab’s moves, of course. But her timing is certainly good. Next year, the stations should see a big bump in revenue from the political electioneering as well as from the NBC network’s broadcasts of the Olympics and the Super Bowl.
Staab has spent her entire career in broadcasting, beginning at KLTV Tyler, Texas, while a 19-year-old student at the University of Texas at Tyler. And she believes that by fixing the NBC stations she’ll be strengthening the entire medium.
“I didn’t like watching these stations become what they became,” she says. “I would much rather have been competing against strong stations. It will help the industry overall if these stations become the stations that they can be.”