As head of a four-station TV group and active member of the NAB and MSTV, Liz Burns is working hard to keep up with the rapidly changing business and to shape Washington broadcast policy.
When TVNewsCheck spoke to Liz Burns last week, she had a severe cold. But that wasn’t all that was bothering her.
As head of the small family-owned TV group, Morgan Murphy Stations, she is frustrated that she doesn’t have the resources to more aggressively pursue new media opportunities, concerned that broadcasting could lose ground in the transition to digital, conflicted over duopolies and has had it with the TV indecency police.
Yet, she says, she would buy more small-markets stations if she could without going “into debt up to my eyebrows.”
As it is now, the Morgan Murphy group comprises four network-affiliated stations: KXLY Spokane, Wash. (ABC, DMA 77); WISC Madison, Wis. (CBS, DMA 85); KVEW/KAPP Yakima-Pasco-Richland-Kennewik, Wash. (ABC, DMA 125) and WKBT La Crosse-Eau Claire, Wis. (CBS, DMA 127).
In addition to running the group, Burns is chairman of the Association for Maximum Service Television and a respected member of the NAB board.
An edited transcript follows.
You represent privately owned, small market broadcasting. Do you sometimes get the feeling that you’re not in the same business as some of the network station groups, or the newspaper-owned groups or the publicly owned groups?
Yeah, I do and for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is I don’t have the wherewithal to do some of the things I would really like to do. I don’t have the critical mass to make some things happen. Having said that, I don’t have Wall Street breathing down my neck to sell off every five years either. So I guess there are trade offs.
Do these divisions—private, public, big, little—cause tension within the industry, within the NAB?
Tension is probably overstating it. There are certainly different opinions. On the NAB board at this point there are enough voices that will kick back on some of doomsday people that we have on the board. There’s more give and take and more conversation than there’s been in the past and I think that’s a good thing.
You said that one of the negatives of being a small operator is that you don’t have the resources to do what you want to do. Well, if you had the money, what would you do?
One thing we’re struggling with is all the new media. They’re fun and they’re sexy, but do they make money? Do they create a return that will make up for network compensation and the loss of national advertising? If I had a cushion and an opportunity came up or a new technology came up, we could just throw ourselves into it.
I think I would even look at adding stations, if I had the wherewithal and didn’t have to go into debt up to my eyebrows to do it.
Where are you putting your investment dollars these days?
Right now we’re treading water. This hasn’t really been a terrific year unless you’re a real political swing state and I don’t know if 2007 is going to be a whole lot better. So, we’re doing what we can with our Web sites and our U-Turn mobile and some of the other things that Neal [Oberg, VP, new media] is cooking up. They’re working very hard to have a good business plan and they’re working on teaching the stations how to sell it not as an add on, but as an independent and vertically integrated business.
I think Jay Ireland [NBC Universal TV Stations president] said it in TVNewsCheck. We’ve got to be the site in town. We’ve got to be the one that everybody turns to rather than the newspaper site or whatever.
Going back to an earlier comment, you said that you would consider buying other stations, but you’re afraid to take on the debt. Aren’t you saying that you’re not sure that this is a good business to invest in these days?
No. I’m just saying that I don’t have an appetite for that much debt. It doesn’t have anything to do with the industry. I just don’t want to threaten the stability of the group unless something came up that was such a fit like [WKBT] La Crosse was, and then I’d probably try to figure out how to do it. But I wouldn’t go looking just to expand. [Morgan Murphy bought WKBT in 2000.]
What are your principal concerns about the digital transition? The final switch is just over two years away now.
After having spent those cajillion trillion dollars on doing the digital conversions, my concern is that we will end up with an inferior picture because cable and satellite for whatever reason decides to downconvert the signal or because consumers don’t want to be bothered with over-the-air. That would be terrible.
I’m hoping that over-the-air HDTV doesn’t turn out to be Betamax when the whole world decides to go VHS. My fear is that customers are going to say, “Well, I could get an antenna and all these converter boxes for my old sets, or I could just plug them into cable and forget the rest.”
So your fear is that digital may lead to less over-the-air reception and that’s sort of the broadcast advantage right now?
Exactly. There is a danger there. We need to keep our eye on the ball so that we don’t end up being a train in a world of transportation. I think we need to make sure that, even though we are the legacy, we need to educate the country about the good stuff about over-the-air and the fact that they can get a superlative picture from broadcasting, that they don’t have to have digital cable, that they don’t have to have all this other stuff, that they really can get it over the air with an antenna. If we don’t educate them, we run the risk of being in trouble.
Is the relaxation of the ownership rules important to you?
Well they certainly are—in the smaller markets as far as duopolies.
That would allow you to buy another top-rated station in some of your markets?
Yeah. Now that would be enticing as well as partnering. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a buy or sell kind of thing.
There’s a lot of that going on. I think it would surprise the world to learn how many of these virtual duopolies there are. A lot of markets are already locked up. I interviewed Rob Hubbard [of Hubbard Television] last week and he is dead set against virtual duopolies, thinks they are unfair.
I know he is. And he’s pretty vocal on that and thinks they shouldn’t be doing those kinds of deals. He fought tooth and nail against the one in Duluth [Minn.] because he competes in Duluth. [In 2005, Malara Broadcast Group purchased KDLH, the CBS affiliate in Duluth, but then turned over the operation to Granite, owner of the market’s NBC affiliate, KBJR.]
Now I don’t know whether this shows how far down the CBS affiliate had fallen in the market or if it shows that people really don’t give a rip, but there was a lot of discussion for about a week about the fact that [Malara’s] KDLH was kind of disbanded. The only thing they kept was the sales arm and one news guy and everything else was done out of Granite’s KBJR and the news itself is just a regurgitation of the five o’clock that’s on the other channel, just a different anchor. It’s even the same set, but they managed to do it and, you know, nobody says a thing. I mean viewers; they just go, ‘OK’. That’s just amazing to me.
How come nobody rallies to Hubbard’s side on that issue?
It’s a nice thought, but the fiscal realities of a smaller market fly in the face of what he’s saying and what they would like to see. In a perfect world, I agree with him, but it’s no longer a perfect world. A lot of these markets aren’t viable for four stations or five commercial stations.
You are active in Washington. What do you want from Washington these days? We talked about ownership rules. Do you care about must carry?
Multicast must carry is what we’re talking about. I think that if you have a good enough program on, they’ll carry you. If you’re relevant, they’ll carry you whether you have multicast must carry or not. I think who’s going to get screwed are the ones that are going to have George Foreman’s cooking shows and that kind of thing on their second and third channels. I’m not saying anything is wrong with that, but that’s when the cable systems are going to come in and say, “We’re not going to do that.” I think that it’s probably very important to people who aren’t going to spend a lot of time programming those second and third channels.
So, must carry is not so important to you.
I’ll go along with people who are fighting for it. I would not even necessarily stay silent on it, but it’s not the biggest thing to me.
By my count, you have digital MNT affiliates in each of your four markets. Do you have cable carriage for them?
On analog channels?
Getting back to Washington, what should the industry be doing on indecency?
The industry is lying down and playing dead and I think it’s just ridiculous—the allegations that are coming out from [the Parents Television Council] and others. I just want this election done so that people can get back to doing their jobs. How do you run for office and say you’re not against indecency?
We’re involved with the Without a Trace fine against CBS stations and I said to my Washington attorney to take it all the way to the bloody Supreme Court because this is just ridiculous. Then, I would like to take Janet Jackson out back and shoot her because she was pushing the envelope and she knew damn well she was pushing the envelope. I would like to see some blame fall on the performers
So you don’t think the industry has been aggressive enough in fighting this?
No. I think we’ve been pussyfooting around it. I just think that you get afraid of your own shadow and when it’s our turn in the box and everybody’s shooting at us, you just don’t react as strongly as you should. It’s starting to turn around. [NAB President David Rehr] is starting to put a proactive spin on things, which is what we’ve encouraged him to do.
Here’s a question I’ve been asking everybody: Do you feel threatened by the networks’ apparent rush to find alternative outlets for their primetime TV shows. It seems like they’re going every which way they can to find a new outlet for it?
I am hoping that our affiliate boards are diligent and are paying attention. I’m not necessarily threatened by it, but I certainly hope that we can figure out a way to share revenue and not get just rolled over.
We’ve been talking about the networks cutting us out for the last 20 years. You could take the position that if they could deliver programming directly over the Internet, why would they need you? But I think they still need the affiliates.
Any chance for retrans money from the cable operators?
Well, we’re going to try.
Are you really? Are you doing to take a stand as [Nexstar’s] Perry Sook did?
I don’t know that we would go that far. We don’t have $6 million to lose, but we’re certainly going to try. We are getting money from satellite. If [CBS CEO] Les Moonves is really on the up and up in saying that CBS is going to stick it to them and draw a line in the sand, we’ll be right there with them.
When are you going to upgrade your newsrooms to broadcast in HDTV?
Not this year, but probably within the next year to 18 months. We’re ready to go. The sets have been built to accommodate it and so it’s just a matter of putting aside the capital for the cameras.
So you will be there by 2009 at the latest?
Yeah. Oh yeah, easily. We’ll definitely be there by 2009.
There was a report out the other day linking television to autism. Now the way I see it, television is now the cause of obesity, single-parent homes, autism, violence, poor education, epilepsy and sexual promiscuity. What do you tell people when they accuse you of causing any or all of these societal ills?
Well I usually say to them, “I understand that you don’t watch television, but have you ever counted up the hours that you do watch.” And they say, “Okay, well, I watch the Today show, I watch, of course, the local news, and I watch this and that.” All of a sudden, they’re up to six hours of television and they never watch television.