The ABCs of Local TV

After close to three years atop New York powerhouse WABC, Rebecca Campbell was named president of ABC’s owned station group in May 2010, succeeding the retiring Walter Liss.

Campbell fairly bristles when the stations on her watch are referred to as “O&Os,” believing that the moniker doesn’t reflect how the outlets are operated from within their communities—not from corporate headquarters. “There’s a huge difference,” says Campbell from her new West Coast base. “Even though we are owned by the Walt Disney Co., every one of our stations is operated locally.”

Campbell takes that concept of localism seriously. She discusses what 2011 holds for the ABC group with B&C Deputy Editor Michael Malone:

Which words come to mind when you think about an ABC-owned station?
Our local commitment to our viewers. Trust and accountability, and certainly leadership. We’re local broadcasters—we have a civic responsibility to all our viewers in the communities. We’re committed to do that in every decision we make. Our viewers depend on us and trust us and hold us accountable. I think they recognize the commitment. And as a result, we’ve become market leaders. Nine out of 10 of our stations are No. 1 sign-on to sign-off, and the majority [seven] are No. 1 in market share.

[Recently] we’ve done so many innovative things, whether it be Live Well [the ABC station group’s multicast channel] and our digital platforms, a state of the art studio we built at WPVI [Philadelphia] and being in more than 50% of the cabs in New York City. So I would include being an innovator on that list.

If you take political advertising out of the equation, do you think business will be flat, or up a little bit, over last year?
We’re cautiously optimistic. It’s still early, but our pacing is up. Automakers are launching new vehicles, and I think the consumer demand for that product is back. Retail, telco and financial were also really strong in 2010, and we expect them to be strong in 2011.

What doesOprahleaving broadcast TV mean to the group?
Each of the markets needed to decide individually what they were going to do with that time period. Many of our stations are going to replace Oprah with local news…add another hour of news and go [local] from 4 to 6:30 p.m. It’s really what we do best.

L.A. is already doing news from 4 to 6:30, so they decided to purchase Dr. Oz at 3 p.m. Chicago also has a unique situation with [Oprah’s] 9 [a.m.] time period. They’re going to launch a live show at 9. It’ll be completely local and highlight Chicago; it will originate from the same studio Oprah launched in 25 years ago.

We’ve been wonderful partners with Oprah and the people who work on her staff. As sad as we are to see that end, we’re excited to continue serving viewers through another hour of local news on most of our stations.

ABC’s Inventory Exchange with affiliates has been a big hit. What role does the ABC group play in the exchange?
There is a committee with people from the network and the owned station group and our affiliates. It’s really a collaborative effort. You’re right, it’s been a huge success—it’s an innovative idea. For so many years, it’s been, the network kept their inventory and we kept our inventory. Now there’s the opportunity for all parties to sit down and really discuss pricing differentials. There are so many moving dynamics going on in both the local marketplace and nationally; I’m thrilled we are having the conversations and are able to work together to provide this opportunity.

ABC is selling WJRT Flint and WTVG Toledo. Is the group looking to sell more stations this year?
The answer is no, we have absolutely no plans to sell any of our other stations. If you look at our eight remaining stations from a strategic standpoint, our focus is on larger markets. [KFSN] Fresno plays a role—it’s one of [our] three stations in California, it’s really our engineering center where we do a lot of our testing.

We didn’t have a for-sale sign out [for WJRT and WTVG]. But George Lilly and SJL Broadcasting came to us. They held those television stations previously—they have a strong history with them. They asked if they could buy them back. The timing was right, and strategically it made sense. [But] we have no plans to sell other stations.

What about being a buyer?
If the right station or group came along that would fit our strategic plan, we would certainly take a look at it. It’s all about what opportunity presents itself.

You're almost eight months into the group president job. What are you most proud of?

It's been an incredible eight months. I got to go see all of the stations, and the people I work with and the company I work for, I believe we have the best and the brightest. As I traveled around the country, I saw that every one of those stations cares so much about its viewers. I feel so privileged to have this opportunity to work with this group of people.

I'm proud to have the opportunity to work with Walter [Liss] for so many ears and for Bob [Iger]. It validates what I always knew about our owned TV station group; looking at all the employees, the viewers are No. 1 in their minds each and every day.

You had a few high-profile retransmission showdowns last year. How is 2011 shaping up in terms of retrans?
Our stations and our network create tremendous value. That's pretty much what the message was in the Cablevision negotiation-we see tremendous value in our stations, we have great strength in our content. It was needed that providers saw that value as well. I know lot of people would like see government get involved. But I think that people now understand the value that we bring, and think that we should be paid a fair market price for that value.

I think the first time out is the most difficult, and it should be easier [negotiating deals] as we continue through this. All the broadcasters have a vested interest in making this work.

In terms of FCC talk out of Washington regarding spectrum, are you concerned with what you're hearing?
I think all broadcasters are waiting to see what develops. Over the air broadcasting has been around for a long time and it's a really, really valuable resource for the country and for all the local communities in which local broadcasters serve. Whatever spectrum policy the FCC pursues should definitely be one that maintains that future for over the air stations. We play a vital role in the community, and they need to make sure they maintain that.

What's on for the ABC station group's Live Well Network for 2011?
We started this, as we like to say, from whole cloth. Local content is what stations do best, and so in the heat of a recession we launched this new network, 24 hours day, seven days a week. We looked to all our owned stations and said, you have the resources and the people, wouldn't it be great if you all contribute shows? And so we did, using our existing facilities and equipment and manpower. It's up and running and we have a website []. We recently signed five Belo stations [to air Live Well] and now are in more than 30% of the country.

As we move forward, our priority is to take the network out and see what opportunities we have with other major groups, which is very exciting.

I'll also mention that we have an iPad app in the iTunes store for all eight stations. We believe we're the first group to have iPad apps for all their stations in iTunes.

What are you watching on TV this season?
I have an 11-year-old daughter who watches only the Disney Channel, I have a son and a husband who watch ESPN, and I'm an ABC viewer, so I work for the right company.

I still love my Sunday nights-Desperate Housewives and Brothers and Sisters. Modern Family, we watch all the time. And now that I'm not in New York I can't see Live with Regis and Kelly because usually I'm in meetings by the time it comes on out here. So I tape it every day.

Do you miss New York?
I've worked in local television for so many years, and I'm not sitting in a television station per se any more, but that's also why I love to travel from station to station, because there's such a dynamic and an energy inside the walls of a TV station and especially the newsroom. When I watched WABC's coverage of the [Dec. 26 blizzard], there it was, the holiday, and so many people were called back in, and they all stepped up to the plate with continuous coverage. It was a true testament to what we all do best.

I miss walking in to a television station every day, but I look at my role now, which is really to help provide the resources to all the stations, and National Television Sales, our sales organization in New York. And I didn't miss New York when it was snowing, I'll tell you that much. I love 75 and sunny, actually. 

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Michael Malone

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.