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Broadcasting:A ‘Frank’ Discussion

ON FEB. 28, Post-Newsweek President-CEO Alan Frank receives the Golden Mike Award from the Broadcasters Foundation of America. One of the most respected figures in the local television world, Frank took over the six-station group in 2000 after a long stint running its WDIV Detroit station.

Frank also serves on the National Association of Broadcasters’ television board, among other influential industry groups, and has chaired the NBC and ABC affiliate boards. He spoke with B&C Deputy Editor Michael Malone about the state of broadcasting today—and tomorrow.

Through your years in the business, would you say affiliate-network relations are worse now, or has the yin-yang relationship always been like this?

That’s a great discussion. For the first time in probably decades, I’m not in the middle of it. I think the Fox discussion is unfortunate. I think station groups feel that it’s not unfair that networks want some part of [retransmission fees]. There is value [in partnering with the networks] and most see that. So the question is what’s the value, but that’s a business negotiation. I’ve been at it a long time, and the pendulum swings one way or the other. I’m not sure it’s worse than I’ve ever seen; I don’t think so. A couple networks are very heavy-handed about how they do it, asking for things they shouldn’t be asking for. But that aside, someone wants more money for something—that’s a business decision.

How would you describe the Post- Newsweek stations?

We are serious journalism stations, big news stations. We’re very locally oriented and very much part of the community. We reflect the community and try to be leaders in it.

How’s business in 2011?

Pretty good. Not as good as 2010, but pretty good. We’re seeing strength in a lot of different sectors—retail, telco, a lot of categories. We think it will be a good couple years.

Might you buy or sell stations?

We were very close to picking up a second station in Miami [NBC Local Media’s WTVJ], but that didn’t happen. We’re always looking. But there’s nothing on the immediate horizon.

Would WTVJ be of interest again at the right price?


Are those talks going on?

They’re not. I have no idea where Comcast is in that matter. It’s a little early for them to be thinking about.

Do you feel Comcast is good for NBC?

I do. Our affiliates negotiated protections [in the merger]. Our two NBC affiliates are in big markets, Detroit and Houston, and it’s very important to us how they do. NBC has been on a steady decline and the former owners didn’t seem to have the answers. We’re hoping Comcast will do better. It’s important to us, it’s important to all of broadcasting. The O&O stations have been in serious decline and we’re hopeful they can fix it all. That would be very helpful to all of us.

It’s better for all the networks if there’s better competition. Brian Roberts said the upside for Comcast is NBC, not all the cable channels— those do pretty well. NBC prime and the stations, that’s the big upside. I take them at their word.

What compels you to give back on the various boards you’re on?

I never considered otherwise. When I ran a station, I was always involved in the community. We got involved in trade groups because we considered our company to be leaders. We have to participate. My predecessors, Bill Ryan and Joel Chaseman, were similar. We just think it’s part of what we do. It’s part of our mentality.

Is it a good time to be a broadcaster?

Oh sure. With all the pressure on the media the past few years, we find local television is in fact back in the center of the equation. People who need to sell product recognize that branding on television is the best way to do it. We’ve always said television works best with other media. It used to be newspapers and radio, now it’s the Internet, social media, all kinds of things.

But to get your brand out, get a clear message out, get umbrella coverage, television works better than any other medium. And local television plays a significant role in our markets. We have all these other opportunities we’re aggressively involved in—our Websites, mobile and other forms that make broadcasting better and better. So we feel good about it.

Since widespread retransmission negotiations for cash is a relatively new thing, do you see fights flaring up for years and years?

The truth is the number of [retrans-related] disruptions is almost insignificant. We did a study two or three years ago. Cable tells customers that 99.97% of the time [their service] is up and running. Every once in a while there's a power failure or an equipment malfunction, they lose the signal. That happens 10 times more than disruption over [retrans]. [Retrans disruptions] are really rather rare. Unfortunately, when you look at the pattern around the country, a few folks are very difficult to negotiate with. And they make it very difficult for everybody. And it becomes very ugly. It's almost always the same one or two players.

But the rules don't necessarily need to change.

Since Newsweek was sold, will you change the name of the Post-Newsweek group?

Legally we have to by the end of summer. Post-Newsweek is not a consumer-facing name-viewers know our stations' names. Post-Newsweek is more business to business: equipment manufacturers, syndicators, networks-all the people we do business with. We'll probably lean toward something that includes Washington Post.

What's a Post-Newsweek station's local story that you're particularly proud of?

They're there all the time. I see things that make me proud that I know have an effect on the community. Our great Detroit anchorwoman, Carmen Harlan-she's a Detroiter by birth and a significant person in the community. [Then] Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was causing a lot of trouble, insisting everyone was against him. Carmen delivered something, marked as commentary, that was a seminal moment for the community. She told the citizens of Detroit, ‘Mr. Mayor, this is too much-you have to leave. We can't do this.'

That said to Detroit citizens, it's OK to be against him. It said to suburban folks, Wow, this means all of Detroit is not aligned with him. From that moment on, it changed the dynamic and the discussion and at some point he was gone. It was a huge moment.

We don't have things that are necessarily that dramatic every week, but we have stories that are remarkable in their impact. We stay on stories. We come back to them. We follow them.

Last summer in Jacksonville, there was a terrible disappearance of a young girl. Our station was very involved in the whole process. She was found killed by a neighbor-it was a gut-wrenching time for the community. The station played a great role in the community and how it worked through its grieving.

A story we did last summer on KPRC Houston was about a young girl who had been left to die, and was discovered by kids and was rushed to the hospital. Everyone thought she was going to die, but within hours she gave a description and they were able to piece together photos of what the [perpetrator] looked like.

Our reporter Joel Eisenbaum stayed in touch with the girl and did a follow-through with her. She did a remarkable interview. She said one of the things that keep her going was that she wanted to be in court when the man was convicted. Three months later they found him in Arkansas. We did another series of stories on him, on her, then a primetime program on the whole story. It was a great story of courage, a story of the police following through. And one reason they followed through was because of our reporting.

We were the only station to cover it and it was a remarkable story of a young girl's strength and ability to persevere and the life she made, the foundation she runs to help young girls with problems. It's just a wonderful story.

We've concentrated a lot on the difficult times the last couple years, on stories about people making a difference in our communities. Sometimes that leads other people to do things to help the community.

The rebirth of the auto industry was a significant story for us. The problems with BP's oil spill was a huge story for us.

How long have you been in Detroit for?

I came here in 1979 for a year or two and here I am.

What did you think of the Eminem commercial in the Super Bowl?

It was spectacular. It was a magnificent rebranding of Chrysler. A brilliant choice. As someone who serves advertising, from every way you look at it, it was brilliant. I think it will do a lot to help Chrysler quickly rebrand itself and try and move forward. They deserve tremendous credit for it.

What are you watching on TV?

I watch a lot of news. I'm a big sports fan. I think Football Night in America on NBC is the finest sports show I've ever seen. Dick Ebersol is a genius and they've done a magnificent job of making that a major event. At the end of Monday Night Football, that was no longer true, they weren't drawing huge numbers. The announcers they've put together-Cris Collinsworth, Tony Dungy-are phenomenal. The whole group just works together so well and is so articulate about where they go with things, how they discuss things.

The whole discussion about concussions was really led by Rodney Harrison saying, until they fined me, I didn't take it seriously, I put money aside for fines every year. But when they suspended me I realized I was letting my team down and had to change the way I played. That moment changed the dynamic of the discussion.

I love The Good Wife, that's a great program. My wife and I like NCIS. I just started watching Justified on FX. Whoa! It's great.

Maybe my favorite show of the last 10 years was The Wire. I've recommended it to so many people. I say, if you're really into political science and how things work and how they don't work, watch The Wire. I never really understood problems with school systems until I watched that show, or the political process. It was a remarkable, remarkable show.

How big a deal is mobile DTV? What are you doing to get on board with it?

We're part of OMVC [Open Mobile Video Coalition] and I'm part of their executive committee. We're part of the Pearl Group and MCV [Mobile Content Venture]. We're trying to find a way to make it work-we have what we think is a good chance for a business coming out of it, and together we're trying to develop it for the industry. Obviously if it works, it works for everybody, not just the Pearl Group. We have invested, and continue to invest, our time, energy, money. So far it's good.

Are you concerned about what you're hearing regarding the broadcast spectrum in Washington?

It is a concern. I've been quoted saying, I was in the army and I understand what the government means when they say voluntary. I'm worried. We support people who want to sell spectrum off, fine, that's their business. My concern is what that means for those of us with no intention of giving spectrum up. Our whole focus is on how we can better serve our viewers and advertisers on all different platforms.

Our point of view is, the most effective use of spectrum is through broadcasting, where it's one to many-by definition it's efficient. We spoke about the Chrysler ad-it didn't debut on the Internet, it didn't debut on the Xbox. It was viewed during the Super Bowl for a reason-because it reached the most people in the most efficient way.

When there are times of crisis, weather emergencies, other types of emergencies, or non-emergencies-when people want to share things like the Super Bowl-there's nothing more efficient than broadcasting. Our concern is, when you start to move pieces around, what that does to those of us [with] no interest in [selling]. Our only interest is remaining significant in our community so we can serve them. When you start changing things, it is a concern.

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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.