The enduringly popular CBS procedural series Blue Bloods is known for its family drama. Tom Selleck stars as New York City Police Commissioner Frank Reagan, who also heads the Sunday dinner table every episode. Frank often delivers clear-eyed wisdom in the face of long odds. “Doing the right thing may be hard,” he once said, “but it sure as hell isn’t complicated.”
That may be how Brandon Burgess felt when he offered up one of the most successful and prescient ideas in modern media. After moving to head up Paxson Communications in 2005 from his spot running business development and global strategy for NBCUniversal, Burgess looked through the numbers. With over 70 stations, the knee-jerk option for the company — renamed ION Media Networks — was to spend big and build a roster of originals programmed for a younger demo. But ION’s hobbling debt and a fervent study of ratings suggested a different plan: license off-network hits, particularly crime dramas, for a song and aim them at an underserved TV market: older adults, especially women.
The strategy was crazy, counterintuitive, vastly unpopular and brilliant. In time, ION found a home for popular procedural fare (including Blue Bloods) and turned a red ledger black with a smooth efficiency that matched the company’s chairman/CEO.
“A lot of people would have blown their brains out trying to program originals, but Brandon didn’t fall for it,” said Jeff Sagansky, former Paxson CEO and cofounder of media ventures company Flying Eagle Acquisition Corp. “He licensed the biggest shows when there was no other audience for them. It was really a visionary move.”
Added Guggenheim Partners executive chairman Alan Schwartz: “In media and in business, there are some people who are really good at seeing the big picture, and others who really drill down and work on all the details. Brandon’s one of the few I’ve come across in my career that did both.”
None of this was accidental for Burgess. He grew up in Germany “with a healthy work ethic” and, after coming to the U.S., graduating from Wharton and doing stints at PepsiCo and Goldman Sachs, he set his sights on New York and a job at NBC. “Over time, we all have to figure out what we’re good at,” Burgess said. “I wasn’t going to direct episodes of Friends. The question is looking for the angles where you can apply yourself in the environment you want to succeed, and for me, that’s always been analyzing things, and if need be, playing the long ball.”
Toward that end, he understood early the eventual reach of digital and, at NBC, worked to create nbcolympics.com; he was also part of the purchase of Telemundo and instrumental in NBC’s first entertainment network acquisition, Bravo, and of buying Universal Entertainment.
“Universal was the big cherry on top,” he said now of the deal that led to NBCUniversal. “The industry was consolidating around us. [NBC was] left with a 90% advertising business and declining ratings; it was the early 2000s and all the shows were expiring, and the content creators had all the leverage. We needed to diversify … and needed, basically, a transforming deal.”
Playing ‘Moneyball’ in TV
The same need explains the much more organic licensing move Burgess implemented in fall 2008, after coming to ION in late 2005. Burgess, a fan of the book Moneyball, about the Oakland A’s statistics-based strategic rise to success starting in 2002, used a similar tactic to explain the move to his people, who were dumbfounded. “Boy, did we have boardroom arguments,” he said.
Burgess has never shied away from such challenges, and his enviable record of reading trends and producing results speaks for itself. Favoring national over-the-air networks in 2007 sparked ION’s multi-network portfolio, and the U.S. multicast category. And he’s long been a leader on topics such as broadcast spectrum and wireless.
With ION’s $2.7 billion sale to E.W. Scripps in 2021, Burgess has pivoted away from the boardroom to enjoy family and leisure time — for now. “It’s hard not to be intrigued by all the technologies that are coming out,” he said, looking down the road. “I think there are organizing principles out there that would require a whole new learning curve.”
Perhaps, but one expects he’d join a company, crunch the numbers and, true to form, make visionary moves, leaving other execs shocked, even dismayed. One gets the sense that, for Brandon Burgess, it sure as hell isn’t complicated. ■
Rob has written for Broadcasting+Cable since 2006, starting with his work on the magazine’s award-winning 75th-anniversary issue. He was born a few blocks away from Yankee Stadium … so of course he’s published three books on NASCAR, most notably, Full Throttle: The Life and Fast Times of NASCAR Legend Curtis Turner. He’s currently the special projects editor at TV Guide Magazine. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post and his origami art has been in The Wall Street Journal. He lives with his family in New Jersey and is writing a novel about the Wild West.
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