Peter Dunn marked 11 years as president of CBS Television Stations in November, an extraordinary run for a group chief. Now president and CEO of the group, which includes 27 stations, Dunn is also president and general manager of flagship WCBS New York, a position he has held since 2005, along with running independent WLNY Riverhead, New York.
Inducted into the B+C Hall of Fame in 2017, Dunn shared his thoughts on the eventful year we’ve had, how 2021 looks in terms of programming and revenue, and what local broadcast might look like five years down the road. An edited transcript follows.
B+C: Ever seen a year like 2020 before?
Peter Dunn: I’ve never seen anything like this. Absolutely not. It’s a very difficult year.
B+C: What is a highlight for the group this year?
PD: We all chipped in to help each other out. KCBS was doing local news for New York for a couple of days during the pandemic, because WCBS was out of the [CBS] Broadcast Center and we had to come up with a plan. Our stations across the country did weekend news for the network during the pandemic. A couple of our stations carried the national stream for CBSN because their employees couldn’t get into the Broadcast Center.
I’m in total awe of everyone that works in our station group. Every station, every employee — I couldn’t be any prouder to be part of the team.
B+C: Have you found revenue in new spots, maybe revenue that you wouldn't have had in a normal year?
PD: Political couldn’t have happened at a better time. In the second quarter, the market obviously cratered. Ever since then, we’ve been building back up to where we need to be. Categories across the board were hurting and they’ve gotten better since. Health care is better, entertainment’s a little bit better, sports betting.
We’ve worked together with our clients to get through this, which makes it kind of special in a weird way. It was all one big team trying to survive 2020.
B+C: In terms of political spending, was it what you anticipated?
PD: It was a little bit more. When [former Democratic presidential candidate Michael] Bloomberg started [spending] in the beginning of the year, that gave us a little bit of a cushion. That helped the political category right from the start.
This was really an amazing political year on all fronts. We have a lot of markets where we've seen a lot of activity. On the West Coast, we had a lot of [ballot proposition] money. It was a record [political] year for us.
B+C: Any thoughts on where people will work when the pandemic is over? Will many still be remote?
PD: One of the things we’ve learned through this whole process is, we could do a lot from home. When things get better, there’s a good chance we will look at every department. Obviously our engineers and IT people, who’ve done an amazing job throughout this whole process, they’ve got to be there. Our news management has to be there, our anchors have to be there. But everybody else, it’s possible we could do a shared office where maybe 50% comes in Monday and Wednesday and 50% comes in Tuesday and Thursday.
This year we learned a lot. One of the things we learned is, we can do a helluva lot from home.
B+C: George Cheeks was named president and CEO of CBS Entertainment Group on March 23. How has that worked out for the stations?
PD: He’s been so supportive of everything that our people needed. Everything we’ve been doing this year, he’s never said no. It’s amazing, the support he’s given us. And even though he’s only been here since March, I feel like I’ve worked with George for like five years already, because so much has happened in such a short time.
B+C: It was almost a year ago that the group launched 10 p.m. news on The CW affiliates in three markets. How’s that working out?
PD: It couldn’t have come at a better time. They’re working out great, especially in markets where we have a lot of political money. We have a CW [station] in Atlanta [WUPA], where the Senate runoff is happening. It was a great call to do that prior to 2020.
The newscasts look really good, too. They are very informative, very clean. It really helps the independent stations to have a base of a 10 p.m. news for promotions.
B+C: In terms of the CBSN rollout at the station level, what does that mean for a station’s presence in a market? Does that make them a bigger news player?
PD: I think it does. More people watch our product. We broke a lot of records in streaming for local news. During the pandemic, we actually rolled out in two markets. We have 10 stations up and running right now [with CBSN Local] and three to finish off in the first quarter of ’21 — Miami, Sacramento and Baltimore. Once that’s done, all of our news stations will have a streaming presence.
The numbers have been phenomenal. Between the pandemic, the recession, social injustice, wildfires in California and Colorado, and hurricane season, the number of people that turned to our CBSN local product has been amazing. Whether it’s streaming or on television, more people are watching our news.
B+C: In this streaming age, where Netflix is such a premiere destination for so many people, where do you see local TV five years down the road?
PD: After what we’ve been through in 2020, local news is going to be more important than it is now. Whether you’re watching it on Channel 2 or on CBSN New York, wherever you’re getting your content, local news is always going to be important. That’s the only thing that separates us from everything else that’s out there, especially coming off a year where our ratings have been up double digits across the board, year over year, because of all the things that we had to make sure we kept them up to date with. It just shows that audiences want local news.
B+C: How does 2021 look on the business side?
PD: It’s too early to say. There’s a COVID spike happening now. How much will that cause a hangover in the first quarter? There’s still a lot of unknowns with that. I’m very optimistic about the vaccines. We’ve got the Super Bowl, March Madness, the Grammys, a lot of things that are going to help us with momentum in ’21.
B+C: You’re the rare group chief who’s also a general manager. Why do you continue to run the show at WCBS New York?
PD: I really don’t sleep much and I like working. It seems to be working, and it’s a great way to share best practices. If I’m going to tell my GMs, ‘you’ve got to do this and that,’ I’m doing it, too. I’m under the same demands that they are. I’m part of the team, which I’m thrilled about.
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Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.