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Cohen Brings Personality to Local Stations

Each weekday morning, producers at KMAX Sacramento, Calif., unfurl a 40-foot canvas map of the region across the station’s parking lot. On the Mega Map, as the Viacom-owned UPN station calls it, reporters plot out traffic snarls as a camera rolls from above. Bands sometimes perform on top of the map, and viewers recently saw a herd of cattle traipse across it.

Station President/General Manager Bruno Cohen might prefer to have a helicopter relaying traffic information, but, for KMAX, a UPN station in a mid-size market, that is not an option. So the Mega Map was born. “I said, 'Let’s do something low-tech and with personality,’” he says.

Besides showing viewers which roads to avoid around the capital, the map provides a guide to the management style of Bruno Cohen. “You could stare at what you lack and say, 'I can’t do it,’” says Fred Reynolds, president and CEO of the Viacom Television Stations Group. “But Bruno doesn’t know from that.”

In this fast-growing market, Cohen (born Mark Cohen) says local broadcasters have no choice but to be innovative. NBC affiliate KCRA is the market heavyweight, No. 1 in news for 35 years. Last April, Viacom acquired CBS affiliate KOVR from Sinclair Broadcasting and tapped Cohen—with more than a decade of experience in local news, plus stints in cable and syndication—to head that station, too.

Television was not Cohen’s intended path. After college at Princeton, where he earned the nickname Bruno (after pro-wrestler Bruno Sammartino) for his aggressive style of basketball playing, Cohen headed to bucolic Eugene, Ore., to start his own paper, The Eugene Sports Spectator. It went bankrupt after a year, but Cohen was hooked on journalism.

Local-news veteran Bill Applegate gave Cohen his first break in TV: At KEZI Eugene, Cohen delivered wire copy, drew the weather on a plexiglass board and processed film. He also learned to write and produce news.

“Development Hell”

Stops in major markets followed, including venerable KDKA Pittsburgh and KPIX San Francisco, then Westinghouse Broadcasting stations. Cohen had risen to news director at KPIX, when a Westinghouse colleague, former KCBS Los Angeles General Manager Jamie Bennett, lured him to Buena Vista Productions to produce a newsmagazine based on People magazine. The deal fell through, but Cohen stayed and developed other magazine programs, talk shows and game shows such as Win, Lose or Draw. He was particularly sweet on a concept show about relationships called Couples that would have been hosted by future Today anchor Matt Lauer and Dr. Nancy Snyderman, now a 20/20 correspondent. But a Disney executive killed the project, telling him the hosts wouldn’t register with viewers. Says Cohen, “That is life in development hell.”

In 1992, Cohen returned to local TV as news director for WNBC New York. NBC’s flagship station had fallen on hard times; it had nine news directors in 11 years, and the news lagged behind its rivals. “It was known as one of the unfixable newsrooms,” Cohen says.

He approached the news much like show development: What did the audience want? What was the news missing? Cohen decided WNBC needed to broaden its coverage to include the suburban areas and add more newscasts, including weekend mornings. Riding a red-hot NBC prime time, the station soared to No. 1, where it remains today.

Amping Up CNBC

After four years, Cohen wanted a new challenge and turned to another NBC property that needed his development touch: CNBC. He worked on the cable channel’s prime time and then attacked its daytime business coverage. The financial markets were soaring, and Cohen wanted to rev up CNBC’s approach. Borrowing elements of sports broadcasting and election coverage, he hatched CNBC’s play-by-play style: Each morning, the network previewed the market, much the way Fox might tease out a football game. Throughout the day, anchors and reporters furiously updated and analyzed the numbers and, after the closing bell, declared winners and losers.

After an electric six-year run, the financial bubble burst, and Cohen departed soon after. Over the next two years, he read voraciously, got in shape and traveled—taking his wife to Galapagos, one son to Europe and the other across America in a Mustang.

Every few months, Cohen would go to New York to visit Dennis Swanson, executive VP/COO of the Viacom stations, whom he had known when Swanson ran WNBC. When Viacom needed an exec to run its Sacramento station last year, Cohen, who grew up in San Francisco, jumped. “I’d always wanted to run a business,” he says, “and I wanted to do it in a growing market.”

Cohen also liked that KMAX programs 31 hours of local programming a week, the most of any Sacramento station—and unusual for a UPN station. That includes morning show Good Morning Sacramento, a fast-paced, lighter program that runs second to KCRA’s morning-news lineup. Cohen made Sacramento’s growing Hispanic audience—16.8% of residents are Hispanic—a top priority; the morning show now includes a cast of Spanish-language interpreters.

While a typical duopoly sees the Big Four station prop up the smaller UPN or WB station, that is not the case in Sacramento, where KOVR relies on KMAX’s infrastructure and personnel.

Cohen is typically bullish on both stations’ futures: “We’re going to play to win. We’ll be aggressive in news and invest in the tools we need.”

That will soon include a helicopter. Until then, the Mega Map will do.