Fox Embraces Underdog Status

With just a fraction of the network programming aired by rival stations, a Fox-owned outlet offers lots and lots of local news. Two years ago, Fox Television Stations and NBC Local Media announced a Local News Service partnership, which kicked off similar content shares around the country. Fox stations CEO Jack Abernethy says the group retains its scrappy ethic even as the stations continue to grow share in their markets. Abernethy spoke with B&C Deputy Editor Michael Malone about what makes the Fox O&Os unique. An edited transcript follows.

Local News Service’s two-year anniversary is coming up. Will that model evolve, or is it perfect as is?
I don’t think it’s perfect. It’s different in every market, but the basic concept is the same everywhere and is very successful. We have three or four partners in the top six markets, with one exception, and a fairly large group of camera people and editors that are covering an awful lot of stories daily, and have been for the better part of two years. So we’re very happy with it, and so are our partners.

Might the Comcast-NBC merger affect LNS?
I think not. We’ve been good partners with NBC. They see things the way we do. And I fully believe that Comcast has good broadcasting DNA and they’ll want to continue it for the same reasons that we started it.

Do you think 2011 will be an off year, or are you optimistic?
I’m fairly optimistic. We had a tremendous amount of political advertising, which in many ways crowded out [core] advertising. We’ve seen virtually all categories show real strength year to year, especially those that had had a couple rough years, like the autos and financial. We’re optimistic for continued growth—albeit not as great as it’s been in the last quarter.

Is what’s going on in terms of broadcasters’ spectrum a concern for you?
It’s a concern. It’s one of the reasons why we joined the NAB—we’re firmly behind Gordon Smith and our fellow broadcasters. While we support the goals of the broadband effort, we also think it’s important to maintain over-theair broadcasting. We think we make good use of the spectrum. We think we will continue to make good use of it, with things like mobile.

How big a business can mobile be?
It’s hard to predict, [but] the success of the tablet has been incredible, and I think you can assume a younger generation that’s going to expect to see television on portable devices soon. If it can be scaled properly, it could be very, very big business.

What does a Fox station represent in its market?
A Fox station generally leads its market in some ways, but at the same time still feels like an underdog. A Fox station is much harder to manage. You have two hours of network programming, while the other networks have at least 11. You have as much as twice the local news as the other network affiliates. I think a Fox station is the most demanding to manage, but also the most rewarding—and usually the most profitable.

Do you figure to add more partners to the LNS concept?
Over the last six months, we've added a station here and there, so it has grown a little bit. But I think the basic concept is sound, and we can cover all the generic things that everybody else would've done anyway, which is what we said we were going to do. It really frees up staff and news departments to be more creative and be distinctive.

LNS has been a tremendous success for us. In some cases it's a scrappy little independent news service like AP-they run around, getting everything they can and feed it into bloodstream. I'm just amazed at people who say negative things about it; they obviously have no idea how it works.

I hear the term "Foxified" a lot-a Foxified newscast is high energy, has a lot of stories, maybe a little bit of attitude. Are reporters at Fox stations encouraged to have a little point of view in their reporting?
I don't know if we've ever used the word "Foxified." What we do try do most importantly is make things compelling. In this environment there are a lot of choices, choices for time-shifted viewing. You really have to be compelling and interesting. People are very quick on their remotes-you can't have any downtime. We certainly encourage people to be aggressive and become interesting in a way that holds the viewers.

Will there be more point of view at the stations in the coming year at the local level?
We do a very limited amount of that. We do editorials in a couple of markets, but for the most part, we're doing news shows, we're not really doing point of view. Occasionally we'll have a point of view but it will be framed like an editorial.

There's a lot of talk of groups shaking up the local news model, such as Tribune trying the no-anchors formula. Will the Fox group think about shaking up the model?
As I mentioned, we're trying to come up with more compelling newscasts. Television news hasn't changed much in the last 30 years, and a lot of that is because it's been successful. But we think it's a time to really evolve and become more current. I don't know if a total shakeup is quite necessary, but you look at a TMZ, which runs on our stations. It's not quite news, but there's an interesting model, with no anchors, no reporters and no studio crew. Yet it's a pretty interesting and compelling format and people seem to want to watch. We're not going to turn our news into a TMZ set, but we're looking for ways to become more current, and some of our stations are further along in this than others.

The Raycom stations have banded together to create the group-wide show America Now. With so many local news outlets, is the Fox group considering creating a similar type of show?
I applaud Raycom for that idea. That notion's been kicking around ever since I've been in this business. I think that we found success by being local; Philadelphia wants news about Philadelphia. If there's a way to make it interesting, we would do it. But you're competing with every other national show--you've got a lot of competitors when you do that.

I haven't seen anybody really come up with a formula that works to do that. Any program that's based on resource-saving is challenging.

There's a little bit of M&A action in the station world. Do you figure the Fox group will acquire or sell stations in 2011?
We don't have any plans to do either, but we're always opportunistic about what's best for the business. A few years ago we sold some. Who knows?

If the group were to do a deal, do you think it would be a buyer or seller?
It depends on the situation. Could be either, or neither.

ABC, CBS and NBC did inventory exchanges with their partner stations around Election Day [see cover story]. I didn't hear about Fox doing that-did I miss something?
We do things like that, in a smaller, controlled fashion when it makes sense. But we didn't have anything as formal as what they talked about.

With the Wall Street Journal part of the parent company, is there any talk of getting more WSJ content and talent on at the station level when appropriate?
We've certainly had that here in New York--Good Day has hadseveral Wall Street Journal writers on. I believe we're somewhat limited by the deal [the Wall Street Journal has] with CNBC. It's terrific to have them as part of the company; their expansion of the paper, in terms of the Greater New York effort, just means more talented people on various beats. It makes it easier for us when we need guests.

Fox News Channel talent sometimes appears on the stations. Any plans to expand their presence on the stations in the new year?
Not formally, no. Neil Cavuto is on every day on the 10 p.m. news around the country. We're able to very quickly integrate their people during elections and programs where you want perspective on a local basis. But there are no formal plans for expansion beyond what we've done. We had a very successful election night, where they did a program for us on the stations. They have a great bench and we're really happy to be working with them.

Are you happy with how your MyNetworkTV stations are doing? Any plans for those?
We made some syndication purchases over the last year. We bought Big Bang Theory and Modern Family. We have 30 Rock coming on next year. Whereas the Fox stations are news and information-based, those [MyNetworkTV] stations will continue to be based on top sitcoms, the MyNetwork network, which has done well, and regional sports, which continue to be successful for us.

Which new fall shows do you like?
I like Glee--I think Glee came back stronger than it was last year. And it's not on our network, but we produce it-I like Modern Family. That's a very funny show that's going to last and have legs. The way they weave the three stories together is very well done.

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.