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At Cox, IndependenceGets the Job Done

Last year, Bill Hoffman was upped from general manager at WSB Atlanta to executive VP at parent Cox Media Group, overseeing the company’s 15 TV stations, along with its radio and newspaper properties.

Hoffman has a varied batch of stations to oversee, representing large markets and small, and the gamut of affiliations, as well independents. Hoffman, who also serves as ABC affiliates board chairman, spoke with B&C deputy editor Michael Malone about the fiercely independent streak that drives many of Cox’s market-leading TV outlets.

How has your transition been to group manager?

Your lens changes quite a bit, from walking in in the morning to a big operation where there’s the sales buzz and newsgathering and people doing it all around you, to an elevated perch where a lot of how you’re getting your information about what’s happening is just numbers— what the ratings were that day, how audience and revenue share are doing. You have to reach out to have more high-touch contact to find out the same things you knew were going on when you ran a station. You’re not able to be that intimate, so you’re looking to fi nd those important touchstones so you know how the health of the operation is, which goes beyond numbers.

What words come to mind that define Cox’s stations?

We’re not the biggest group, but the 15 stations we have across the web of different markets tend to be very high performers on the revenue side as far as share of business. They are dedicated to their community. There’s continuity as far as sales and news leadership. We don’t have a lot of turnover, which is nice because you can work on perfecting execution instead of changing the playbook year after year for new managers. We tend to be news leaders regardless of affiliation, which I think is a statement about how we super-serve our community. I’m just really proud of the news product we make available in every market.

While running WSB Atlanta, you were adamant about not joining the local content share with your competition. Does that mindset hold now at the group level?

Yes. I say that with a caution flag, because you don’t know what tomorrow brings. I hope we don’t go through that tough of a valley as we did a couple years ago. We certainly have been tested. If ever there was a time to put it into consideration, it was then. But we didn’t do it. We didn’t do furloughs. I’m really proud that we went that route and kept our portfolio of stations in great shape. I’m grateful we decided stay the course of independence and keep hold of some of our prize possessions, like helicopters.

How are the Cox stations poised to get political cash this year?

That gets into a real interesting conversation, because it’s been ballyhooed by so many pundits that this is the year of the big spend. What we hear right behind that is that it might be really, really, really deep, and narrow. The markets in play get a lot of money—it’s saturation bombing there. Other markets might not get as much—there might be a concession that the market is not worth the investment because [the candidates] don’t have the wherewithal to win.

History has shown that Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida have been key in the past, and we have strong properties there. The rest of the stations, it’s hard to tell at this point.

How does your role as head of the ABC affiliates board help the Cox group?

We’ve got very strong ABC affiliates in Orlando, Charlotte and Atlanta. As good things get done with ABC, that strengthens our ABC stations, and that’s good for our portfolio at Cox, because those are three large markets. I also think it’s just fighting the good fight for local broadcasters, in the way we lobby lawmakers, make calls on the FCC, stay plugged in on policy issues, and on many fronts actually hold hands with the network and join together to fight to keep local broadcasters alive and strong and our business model functioning well.

Is Cox a keeper of its broadcast spectrum?

We’re a strong advocate of keeping.

What is your concern level regarding Washington and spectrum?

We’re taking nothing for granted. We know the people on the other side, the telcos, lobby hard for their business position. We respect that, and we hope the center of our argument is public service. How many times do we have to see a tsunami, a killer tornado, a devastating hurricane— another constant reminder that, if there was a mobile handheld device that could warn people to protect property and guard lives—isn’t that worth it? We say yes.

As you visited the Cox stations around the country, what was something you saw that stuck out in your mind?

I've been with the company a long time, and what continues to be true is every single market has its different nuances, its different competitive feel, and it's important to spend time to get to know all those little nuances. Because you can't stereotype every single strong ABC or Fox station as facing the same adversity and challenge in their marketplace. They live and breathe differently in the market they're in.

How are Cox's plans for mobile DTV going?

We are bullish on that business. We've been aggressive and very involved in our relationship with [the Open Mobile Video Coalition] and Pearl [Mobile DTV Co.] and the development of the technology and the considerations of the business model. We're very bullish on sustaining a viable business platform for the future.

Will it be a viable business this year?

It's hard to stay. Stay tuned: Some newsworthy press releases will come off of the CES convention [Jan. 10-13]. I think you're going to see some things that will push more life and give a quicker timetable on things.

Might Cox buy or sell stations this year?

As you know we've not been a player on the buying side, and we have not floated any properties out there to sell. We like the TV business. We really just haven't put energy into making our television footprint bigger. We've spent most of our looking-forward exercises on what we can do to expand our opportunities in the digital area.

What's the status of your affiliation agreements?

Right now, our affiliation agreements are in good standing. We're proud that our Fox stations are Fox stations, that our NBC stations are NBC stations; we try to be active on the operating boards of those affiliates. We like a cross-section of affiliates-we think it's healthy for us to have a little of everything.

Are the networks fair in their demands for a big piece of local broadcasters' retrans cash?

I really don't want to comment, because retrans negotiations vary group to group and station to station. We understand that that's part of the new world.

If you take political out of the equation, how's 2012 looking?

It's too early to tell. I think the only category that has people optimistic is the No. 1 category in our business [automotive]. But it's not the only one, so you can't take my answer as litmus test that everything is going to be good. But it sure feels like the automotive category should be well up over 2011.

What are you watching on TV?

I love that sitcoms are coming back across all of television. I think that's real healthy. It's good entertainment because you come home at night, you had a tough day, you lean back and forget about the troubles of the day and get a good hearty laugh in. Those shows do well in repeats. I like what they bring to the syndication market, supplying independents with viable programming options for their important 6-8 or 5-7 p.m. early fringe blocks. We went through a long-time gap where there just wasn't enough sitcoms coming out-successful ones, anyway. I think all the networks have great examples of sitcoms going on.

Which ones give you a hearty laugh?

I think ABC has the funniest one with Modern Family. It's wonderfully written and the cast is fabulous.

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