When NBC Universal's television station group last spring devised a new executive role to oversee sales and emerging platforms, it called for an executive with an unusual pedigree.
With a hard-to-match blend of sales and local station management experience, NBC veteran Frank Comerford fit the bill. After two decades in local TV sales, Comerford is skilled at catering to clients and closing deals. And, having served for six years as the general manager of NBC's flagship station, WNBC New York, he knows the ins and outs of the local TV business and how to grow audiences.
Now Comerford is tackling perhaps his biggest challenge yet. As president of platform development and commercial operations for the NBC Local Media Division (the new name for NBC's owned and operated station group), Comerford oversees sales for the 10 NBC O&Os, as well as ad sales for new platforms and the development of new products to deliver NBC stations' content.
To some it may seem like a nebulous-sounding position, but it's tailor-made for the station industry veteran who has deep experience launching new products and finding advertisers to back up the efforts.
“Frank is an incredibly talented commercial leader with experience with the agencies and advertisers,” says NBC Local Media President John Wallace. “He has the right mix of skills that are critical for success in commercial aspects and making sure we're bringing the right products to market.”
At a time when local stations are hunting for new revenue streams beyond traditional 30-second spots, NBC stations are launching original programming, expanding news and online products, and deploying NBC content on out-of-home systems. Those range from being the station passengers see when they step into a New York City cab equipped with a back seat TV, to creating a presence at sports arenas around the country.
WNBC, where Comerford served as general manager from 2002 until last spring, has been at the forefront of many of these innovations.
It debuted several well-received local shows, including sleek real estate program Open House and entertainment show First Look New York. Both have spawned spin-offs for the Los Angeles market on sister station KNBC. Another WNBC original, movie review show Reel Talk, is now in syndication nationwide.
The station's latest move is to launch a 24/7 news channel on one of its secondary digital stations.
Similar efforts, Comerford says, will be made at other NBC stations. His new job is to sell advertisers on such existing products and drum up new concepts. That, says Wallace, has helped position Comerford to step up to his new post. “It is paramount for Frank to understand the changing consumer and the way they access media and develop plans to monetize,” he says.
The Georgetown University graduate joined Storer Television Sales in 1981 and eventually became general sales manager at Storer's WSBK.
It was there he learned the importance of local programming. At the time, WSBK was the major player in Boston sports with more than 20 sporting events per year, including Red Sox and Celtics games. Those games gave the a station an identity with viewers and advertisers.
The New York native always wanted to return home, and, in 1994, Comerford joined WNBC as directr of sales. Like WSBK, WNBC had distinct selling points, which included successful local news. “In New York, I was able to build on the career I'd built—on a bigger stage and in a bigger marketplace,” he says.
In 1996, Comerford was promoted to VP of sales for the station. During his tenure, WNBC became the No. 1 billing station in the market (Disney-owned WABC now has that distinction). “We built the station to be a real leader in the market,” he recalls.
NBC rewarded Comerford's success with a promotion in 1999 to VP of sales for the NBC O&Os.
Once again, Comerford made sports a centerpiece of his sales strategy. With NBC's 10-year deal for five Olympics, Comerford formed a dedicated Olympics ad sales force for the local stations. The group even assisted NBC affiliates on Olympic sales, helping to push the efforts to about $25 million in local Olympic sales across NBC stations.
In July 2002, he got his “dream job” as WNBC general manager. “It was an iconic TV station in my hometown,” Comerford says. “It was a dream come true.”
For the next six years, he focused on WNBC's localism. “We needed to be a place for New Yorkers to get content they identified with.” He says. “Our concentration on localism set us apart from our competitors.”
To that end, WNBC launched local shows like Jane's New York (which was cancelled for high production costs, but Comerford says the experience helped lay the foundation for WNBC's latest shows like Open House.)
The station built out its Website and went to high definition for its local news and programming.
But when WNBC's prime time sagged, WNBC's news ratings suffered. It lost some key syndicated programming. WABC gained a foothold.
WNBC anchor Chuck Scarborough recalls that during tough times, Comerford kept an even keel.
“In an environment where it would have been fairly easy for morale to flag, he maintained it very well,” Scarborough says. “All kinds of adversity was piling up and he managed to keep heads up and grow a robust revenue stream.”
Now he's looking for new streams. Local stations, he says, can no longer survive on just TV. “We need to be on adjacent media, even if TV is still our biggest platform,” he explains. “On TV, we are creating content that can be distributed out of home, on digital and a news channel. We need to please our customers and advertisers anyplace, anytime.”
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