The Gambler

With each subsequent digital TV test, whether it was the Wilmington, N.C., market's early switch in September or stations in dozens of states shutting off analog signals last week, broadcasters get a clearer picture of what awaits them nationwide when full-power analog television is shut off Feb. 17. Hopefully, they also get a little more peace of mind about the historic switch.

But KVBC Las Vegas General Manager Lisa Howfield was stepping into the great unknown when she concocted a “simulated” shutoff of the station's analog signal during each of KVBC's seven newscasts way back on May 2. One FCC commissioner called the move—apparently the first of its kind—“gutsy.”

Others called it crazy.

KVBC ran a clip of an anchor quite literally pulling the plug on analog TV that day, with a graphic in the simulated static instructing affected viewers to call a toll-free number. While such tests are common today, KVBC was the first to conduct one, according to the National Association of Broadcasters. Howfield says the idea for “Pull the Plug” was hatched when she overheard someone say that simply turning off the analog signal would truly get people's attention.

No Washington bureaucrat made her do it. No technology company made her a deal. Howfield just believed it made sense for the market to see how prepared Vegas viewers were.

“I thought, 'What if we just turned it off for a couple of minutes?' and the idea began to grow from there,” says the B&C General Manager of the Year for markets 26+. “My engineers thought I was insane.”

More Vegas than Elvis

Perhaps Howfield's risk-taking streak is genetic. She's a classic child of Sin City—the daughter of a cocktail waitress and a blackjack dealer. She remembers Vegas as an intimate desert town back in the 1960s, where wild dogs and jackrabbits gamboled on her lawn, and half of her classmates' parents worked in the gambling industry, the other half at the site where the government tested nuclear weapons. “Back then it just seemed like a small town,” she says.

While it has cooled of late, Vegas' population growth across the last few decades has been astounding; it's the No. 42 Nielsen DMA, up from No. 51 just three years ago. Howfield started at Sunbelt Communications-owned KVBC 14 years ago after a short stint in Los Angeles, where she worked at Warner Home Video. She started in the KVBC sales department, helping close deals for co-workers, some of whom were sleeping in after the previous night's wining and dining of clients. She eventually moved into management, and took over the general manager title two years ago.

As befits a boom town, the Vegas TV market is fiercely competitive. KVBC's NBC affiliation doesn't spell large primetime numbers, but bold moves from Howfield have made it a player. She's concentrated on mornings, pairing up married couple Kim and Dana Wagner—Kim was anchoring weekends at KVBC, Dana was a weatherman—for Wake Up With the Wagners! (Not merely a numbers-cruncher, Howfield came up with the program's name, too.)

She likens the morning shakeup to “taking away people's coffee”—nudging viewers out of their comfort zone for a richer blend that's ultimately more satisfying. The proof is in the ratings; KVBC finished in a virtual tie with Meredith's KVVU for the morning crown in the November sweeps. “I'm really proud of what we've done with that newscast,” she says.

With the digital transition less than two months away, Howfield remains focused on viewer awareness. While she's seen the analog-only target group shrink from 10% to 7% since the initial test, she believes there are still plenty who haven't gotten the message. KVBC held another test in November to mark the 100-day countdown to the deadline (fittingly, KVBC's tagline is “Watching Out for You”).

And when the FCC suggested the market run a test Dec. 17, Howfield took it several steps further—shutting off five times throughout the day, starting with the 6:30 a.m. news, and ending with a 3:30 a.m. test. “We've got a lot of shift workers here who might not get the message if it ran only in daytime,” she says. “We said, 'Why don't we do it at different intervals and make sure we're reaching everyone?'”

In fact all the Vegas stations worked together to shut off analog signals during the same five time slots Dec. 17, and shared their findings throughout the day. As much as she's a hard-core competitor when it comes to ratings and revenue, Howfield says she's happy to work with the competition if it means benefiting the community. “Am I competitive? Yes, I'm very competitive,” she says. “But if I think it's for the good of the industry or the community as a whole, I'm all for sharing it.”

Many in the broadcasting business thank Howfield for taking that frightful first step in testing DTV readiness. “We certainly applaud Lisa and her station for pioneering what's become a very effective test,” says Shermaze Ingram, the NAB's DTV senior director. “There's no question that the [lessons] from that first test have been very valuable industry-wide.”

She also gets high marks from another Vegas native, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “Lisa truly deserves this award for her work in making her station a leader in the transition to digital,” Reid says. “I congratulate her for receiving this honor as well as the staff at KVBC for their work to make this transition a smooth one for their viewers.”

Howfield's management strategy reveals her knack for going against the grain, an attribute that should help her navigate a rocky road for local television—and for Vegas, as its tourism business takes a dramatic hit in the recession. Sunbelt owner Jim Rogers says he has unflagging trust in Howfield's business instincts. He believes KVBC's DTV campaign, starting with that unplugging in the spring, has made a significant impact on Las Vegas. “It brought the issue to the forefront, and it's done people a lot of good,” he says. “It was a helluva good idea, and I wish I'd thought of it.”

For Howfield, it's not just educating viewers—it's educating friends, neighbors and family. “When I make decisions about what we're doing here, this is not just a company, this is not just a city,” she says. “This is my home.”

Michael Malone

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.