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Broadcasting's Voice of Reason

While some difficult network-affiliate negotiations dominated the broadcasting business in the recent past, the calm and reasoned perspective of Dispatch Broadcast Group vice chairman and CEO Michael Fiorile, who is also vice chair of the CBS affiliate board and a director of the NBC affiliates board, helped get everyone marching in lockstep. Commanding deep respect from both his affiliate colleagues and the network execs across the table, Fiorile played a key role in getting both sides working together for broadcasting's greater good.

And during a year marked by major consolidation, Fiorile and his Dispatch Broadcast Group bucked the trend. Dispatch owns just two stations- WTHR Indianapolis and WBNS Columbus (Ohio)-but both are monsters in their markets that have solidified their top spots in 2012.

On a recent visit to New York, Fiorile, B&C's 2012 Broadcaster of the Year, spoke with deputy editor Michael Malone about the busy current year and the challenging year ahead.

What was your highlight this year?

Certainly the elections took a lot of our focus, a lot of our time-fortunately, in terms of inventory management, but also in news coverage. We consider ourselves at the Dispatch companies to be locally focused, so elections are really, really important for us. We are owned by a family and we're privately held, so both for the community and for our owners, we want to make sure we are doing our utmost to cover the elections.

This morning, on my flight, I sent an email to our general managers reminding them that I assume the networks will cover as much as they can, but if they don't, we have to find other sources to deliver election coverage.

What was a Dispatch news story that really crystallized what the group is about?

We did a very important piece on pharmacies not shredding records and loading dumpsters with prescriptions, renewals and their total disregard for patient privacy. That made some noise. We had a very enterprising reporter who did some dumpster-diving at a pharmacy and came across a ton of information. It got some of the larger drug chains to enact shredding policies they didn't have previously, or had but had been lax about.

There have been tough battles between networks and affiliates in recent years, but it has been quiet of late. Are those in the past, or are they just not made public?

More than anything else, in any business, that's about a lack of communication. The affiliates need to make their case constantly and strongly to the networks-what they need, what they don't need-and sometimes it's harder to be heard than at other times. If the affiliates are well-represented by a responsive affiliate board, and the affiliate board is direct and makes sure its message is heard, I don't see problems. It's a challenge at times, either on the network or affiliate end, when somebody's not communicating. My experience with NBC and CBS-I think relations there are pretty good. Not that there won't be issues.

What did you think of NBC's Summer Olympics coverage?

I thought it was outstanding. Just outstanding. The Games exceeded affiliates' expectations. That's why we bought the ad. [Fiorile points to a full-page ad in The New York Times that the NBC affiliates bought to thank the network.] Ratings exceeded affiliates' expectations. The financial returns for stations and the network were tremendous.

What's interesting, and we'll have to study why it was a success, but my sense is, online is not hurting [Olympics viewing]. Perhaps it helps. The networks have been telling us that for years. We didn't want to believe it, and they were right.

While political ads are pouring in now, how do you prepare for what looks like a down year in 2013?

We very carefully manage our expenses even in the bountiful years of political spending. I would imagine there will be more than $25 million in political at our Columbus station. A market can't find that in regular business. You just manage your expenses. You don't take this for granted, you don't plan on it for next year.

In this era of station group consolidation, is it harder to exist with just two stations?

It really hasn't been for us. We have terrific relationships with the networks, with syndicators, our rep firm. In a world of consolidation and, in some cases, highly leveraged operators, we find it easy to recruit people. And when we get people, we find it easy to hold onto them. Our stations are very dominant in both markets. So if there's a new offering, a new syndicated show, a new service, we're often visited before the other stations in spite of our competitors being part of much larger groups. It hasn't been the challenge that you would think it would be, fortunately. We have great managers and great relationships.

Besides good recruiting and retention, what else goes into being a market leader?

You really have to be local. You really have to pay attention to the market you operate in. You have to be first with news, you have to cover it more in-depth, you have to cover more sides of story, you have to be better. You have to not be bashful about breaking in with news. We do a good amount of news specials in primetime as warranted. You really have to pay attention to local. That's the most important thing.

And we invest. I'm fortunate to work for a company that's not highly leveraged. And we invest-heavily-in the news product. In Columbus, we're the only station with a helicopter. We have no plans to get out of the helicopter business.