Harry Pappas

When KMPH Fresno-Visalia, Calif., first signed on the air in October 1971, the independent station delivered a fresh voice to the fertile Central Valley, with programming, including local sports and a new talk show hosted by Phil Donahue, previously not available in the market.

For the station’s owner, Harry Pappas, chairman/ CEO of Pappas Telecasting, KMPH also signified a personal milestone: Although he and his brothers had owned radio stations, KMPH was his first foray into TV. Today, Pappas Telecasting constitutes the largest group of privately owned commercial TV stations in the country, ranked 18th on Broadcasting & Cable’s list of the Top 25 station groups.

KMPH’s call letters provide a window into the Pappas corporate history. The M, P and H represent the three Pappas brothers who founded the operation: twin brothers Michael and Peter, who died more than a decade ago, and Harry, who was eight years younger.

The company now owns and operates 30 TV stations and holds construction permits for 10 more. But before Harry went on to build a TV empire, the Pappas brothers got their start in radio, which Pappas says provided a solid foundation for the television business.

The brothers had been radio disc jockeys, sales executives and, eventually, co-owners of two Central California radio stations. But Harry was tempted by television. “I was fascinated,” he says, “by the widespread impact that television had as a very mass medium.”

At Harry’s urging, the brothers applied for a construction permit to build what would become KMPH. It was a risky move. Seven other potential operators had tried to start independent stations in the market, and they all failed. With confidence from their radio operation, Pappas says, the brothers were not deterred.

The Federal Communications Commission granted the Pappas’ approval at a time when the television industry was going through sweeping change. The FCC adopted the financial interest and syndication rules, limiting broadcast networks’ ability to control syndicated programming. That freed up independent stations to buy up library programming to fill their airwaves.

“We knew there were so many programs that had aired from the 1950s and ’60s that were warehoused and had not been available to independents,” Pappas says. “As we saw it, the floodgates were going to open.”

Determined to make KMPH a success, Pappas gleaned how to succeed with an indie by studying several great ones, including KCAL Los Angeles and KTVU San Francisco. To compete with network affiliates, Pappas concluded, independents needed “The 4Ps”: Quality programming, top-notch people, savvy promotion and strong transmitter power.

“Those are the pillars we build our business on,” says Charlie Pfaff, general manager of KMPH and an 18-year Pappas veteran.

KMPH flourished, and, in 1977, Pappas swapped his radio assets for his brothers’ stake in the TV company. His new company, Pappas Telecasting, began to furiously acquire stations and construction permits across the country. After KPMH, the next stations to sign on were WHNS Asheville, N.C., in 1984 and KPTM Omaha, Neb., in 1986. The portfolio has grown to include stations in Los Angeles, Houston, Greensboro, N.C., and duopolies in Fresno and Omaha and Lincoln-Hastings, Neb.

“Harry is a fabulous American businessman, and there is not a more spirited broadcaster,” says Preston Padden, executive VP of government relations for ABC and Walt Disney Co., who worked with Pappas when Padden was president of the Association of Independent Television Stations.

Pappas was equally intrigued by network affiliations and waited for new opportunities to arise. In 1988, KMPH signed on as a Fox affiliate and then added four more of his stations to the network. When The WB and UPN launched in 1995, Pappas Telecasting was once again among the charter station groups. New networks, Pappas says, “require an enormous amount of patience and long-term faith.”

In recent years, Pappas has gambled again, with Hispanic programming, backing Azteca America’s launch in this country with six affiliates. This year, after the news that The WB and UPN would merge, several of his stations have signed on with The CW and MyNetworkTV.

With every new station and network affiliation, Pappas says, the motivation “is to bring new television service to areas that were relatively underserved.”

Network executives say Pappas stations are first-rate affiliates. “Harry is great at building powerful TV stations, and he promotes like hell,” says The CW’s COO John Maatta, who worked with Pappas on the launches of The WB and The CW.

Pappas isn’t done yet. He’s still a buyer, and he’s bullish about new programming ventures and the Internet. For example, Pappas stations are launching new online forums for user-generated content, dubbed Community Correspondent, giving local viewers a place to post stories and video.

The company plans to feature a Community Correspondent-generated story in at least one newscast per station each day.

“In every market,” Pappas says, “there is great interest in where people live, how they live, what schools they go to and what conditions are like in their communities.”

Efforts like Community Correspondent and locally produced programs, he adds, are keys to serving the communities that host Pappas stations. “We are people who make long-term commitments,” Pappas says. “If we think something is really right, we’ll take the steps for it to be nurtured, grow and blossom.”