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Clear Blue Skies for Gray

Gray Television President/COO Bob Prather oversees the company’s 36 stations, and those outlets are frequently market leaders. The Atlanta–based group is one of the more innovative station owners when it comes to using digital channels; 18 different stations feature MyNetworkTV on a multicast channel, while other Gray stations’ digital tiers offer ABC, The CW and local news and weather.

The always outspoken Prather spoke with B&C Deputy Editor Michael Malone about what the Gray stations are doing to meet the everchanging needs of their viewers.

What do you make of the negotiations that went on between Fox and its affiliate board recently?

I think the networks are trying to play a good hand when they have one. Fox maybe overplayed, [but] that’s their privilege.

In your time in the business, have you seen this degree of acrimony between networks and affiliates?

It’s been getting worse over time, so this doesn’t surprise me.

How do you think it will play out?

We need each other; I think it’s a symbiotic relationship. It’s kind of like negotiating with cable guys. They didn’t want to pay anything [for retransmission], now they are all paying. We’re going to have to pay something [to the networks], we just want to make sure it’s reasonable.

What’s your biggest focus these days?

Trying to make sure our stations get local HD. We’re also trying to get them running as efficiently as possible, with automation and all the things that will allow us to run them more efficiently.

How do you describe a Gray station? What are the trademarks?

They’re market leaders, very community-focused. We have 24 No. 1 stations out of 36, and three are No. 2. Striving to be No. 1 and being an integral part of the communities we’re in is extremely important to us.

You have 10 NBC affiliates. What do you make of Comcast taking over NBC?

I’m willing to give them a chance. I think they’re more attuned to the television world. They’re content guys, so I think it will be good for the industry.

What’s the latest on Gray’s deal to consult for the Young stations?

We’re actively involved with the stations, finishing up their capital budgeting right now. I feel real good about it.

What will viewers in those markets see differently from the Young stations?

I think some capital will make their on-air product better. You won’t see anything overnight, but over a relatively short period of time, viewers will see a better product on the air. That’s our goal.

What are you doing about mobile DTV?

We’re testing in Omaha and it’s working real well technically. Right now we’re all waiting to see what standard comes out. I’ve been on record saying I think the Pearl [Project] group spinning off is hurting mobile TV. I hope it gets settled up and we can be an active participant. We think mobile TV will be great for us, and it is obviously something we need to be involved in. Technically it’s working great, and we looking forward to having it available in our markets.

Are the Pearl groups closing their door to everyone else?

I think there’s dialogue between [Mobile 500 Alliance and Mobile Content Venture, which includes the Pearl Project stations] right now. I think the Pearl group’s ideas of how the economic models would work probably haven’t worked how they thought. Hopefully they’ll come around to where we can all be on the same page and have a unified front.

The spectrum issue in Washington—are you concerned?

The good news is, they can’t get anything done, so I’m not too worried about it. [The FCC and Congress] have proven they’re incapable of getting anything done, so that’s probably good news for all Americans right now.

How’s business in 2011?

The first quarter is looking better than we thought it would be—I’m real pleased. I was a little bit worried about a big drop-off after the Olympics and the election year, but so far pacing is ahead of where we thought it would be. Auto is still strong. Most of the categories are doing pretty good right now.

Is it a good time to be in the TV business?

I think so. We had an all-time record year in 2010. Not only political was strong—the business in general was strong. Like I said, 2011 has started out stronger than we thought it would.

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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.