Fox Taps Swanson To Run Stations

Veteran TV station executive Dennis Swanson, most recently the No. 2 executive at the Viacom Station Group, is jumping to the Fox Television Group to be president of its 35 Fox and UPN stations, as B&C first reported Thursday morning. Swanson, who will start Oct. 10, will report to Fox Television Stations CEO Jack Abernethy.

“Dennis is a top television executive with invaluable experience and tremendous knowledge of the television industry. I'm pleased to have him join my team,” Abernethy said in a statement.

Swanson is well-regarded by syndication executives, news talent and agents and known for turning around laggard stations. He has held station executive posts at all four major broadcast networks. But, last month, Swanson was passed over for the top job at the Viacom Stations and, associates say, that prompted his departure.

Since the summer, the executive ranks at the Viacom Station Group have been roiled by uncertainty. Fred Reynolds, formerly CEO of the Viacom stations, abruptly resigned in July to join a private investment firm, only to return shortly after to be the new CBS Corp CFO.

That left Viacom Co-President and Co-CEO Leslie Moonves (who will be CEO of the new CBS Corp.) looking for a new station chief. Former Fox Television Stations chief Mitch Stern’s name surfaced as a contender, as did those of Swanson and Viacom Stations’ president of ad sales Tom Kane. Ultimately, Kane—who Swanson brought over to the company—got the nod, leaving Swanson as the No. 2, an outcome associates say he was not satisfied with. 

Poaching Swanson is the latest in a string of changes to hit the Fox Television Stations since Fox News Channel Chairman Roger Ailes took over the group two months ago from News Corp. Deputy COO Lachlan Murdoch. Abernethy, a former Fox News executive, was already in place and has remained a constant. Since Ailes arrived, though, Fox has already ordered up a new daily topical show, Geraldo at Large, hosted by Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera, to replace the struggling A Current Affair. Last week, Fox tapped Fox News executive Sharri Berg as senior VP of news operations for the station group. Other changes afoot may include launching a morning show and possibly even a national evening newscast. 

Insiders say Ailes wants all the station group executives to be based in New York, and some L.A.-based execs, including head of programming Frank Cicha, are already planning to relocate.

Swanson is known for revamping underperforming stations. He joined Viacom in 2002 to help Reynolds remake the company’s CBS and UPN outlets, most of which were market laggards. (Reynolds is now slated to be executive VP/CFO of the new CBS Corp. when Viacom makes its planned split into two companies next year.)

At Viacom, Swanson recruited a team of new general managers, many whom he previously worked with, and poached well-known talent from rival stations. The mission is still a work in progress. Some of the CBS stations, including New York and Los Angeles, have markedly improved, but still trail the competition.

Still, taking on the Fox-owned stations would be a daunting task. Many colleagues thought Swanson was heading towards retirement. If he takes the Fox job, however, Swanson—who prides himself on visiting every station several times a year—will have 35 stations that need his attention. Many are fourth-placed in late news and have struggled to find successful syndicated programming.

But Swanson has a proven record of success. Early in his career, he helped turn ABC-owned KABC Los Angeles and WLS Chicago into powerhouses, and briefly ran the ABC-owned station group.

Swanson is credited with giving Oprah Winfrey her big break in Chicago. In 1996, he took over WNBC New York and helped convert the station into the market leader. He bolted from NBC to Viacom after apparently growing dissatisfied with the NBC station group's movement toward centralized management.

At Fox, Swanson already has a familiar face close by. On Monday, Fox said that Lew Leone, former president/GM for WCBS New York and a close Swanson deputy, was taking over as GM for its New York duopoly WNYW and WWOR.

—Ben Grossman and Jim Benson contributed to this report.