Local TV Gray-beard Starts Fresh Chapter

Robert Prather certainly spoke his mind in the buttoned-up corporate world, back when he was president of Gray Television. And one expects an even greater display of unfettered bluntness, as well as the typical bevy of keen insights, in his new independent venture. While corporate chiefs rarely speak their piece in public, Prather always seemed happy to do so—whether it was by blasting NBC for its ill-fated Jay Leno primetime experiment in 2009 (“I got a call the next day from the head of NBC,” he says sheepishly), calling out the networks for their “outrageous” retrans demands or ripping his own industry for having two separate mobile DTV initiatives.

“I like to say what’s on my mind,” Prather admits. “I don’t like corporate-speak. I read press releases all the time and laugh at them. Honesty is the best policy—it doesn’t hurt you to say what you think about things.”

That singular honesty served Prather well during his nearly 20 years running the Gray Television station group, and his reputation for forthrightness is key as he sets out building a new group after leaving Gray in June. A station start-up is a mighty tall order when everyone else seems to be merging (Gray, for one, announced a $342.5 million acquisition Nov. 20); a company doesn’t have much retransmission leverage with a lone station in Utica, N.Y. (DMA No. 172).

But those who know Prather well say it isn’t wise to bet against him. “Bob understands the details of the business and the minutia it takes to run the business,” says David Smith, Sinclair Broadcast Group president and CEO. “He knows how to make money, and there’s no reason to think he won’t do it again.”

Prather was raised outside Atlanta; his father was an auditor for the U.S. Army. Prather’s first job after graduating from Georgia Tech was as a financial analyst at Fuqua Industries, a conglomerate that owned everything from manufacturing concerns to sporting goods outfits to trucking companies. Showing a savvy business sense, Prather was promoted to VP, working on mergers and acquisitions— including TV stations. “I didn’t pretend to be a television expert,” he says, “but I learned enough to know that TV was a good business.”

He left Fuqua in 1981, acquiring a $3 million metals company a year later and growing it to a $110 million outfit within a decade. With the cash he banked from that deal, Prather and a partner, Mack Robinson, acquired 44% of Atlanta-based Gray. A lot had changed since Prather last worked in the media, but he was a quick study; his colleagues describe him as insatiably curious, with an enormous capacity for details. “He’s one of the most adaptable business executives I’ve ever met,” says Bill Hague, Frank N. Magid Associates senior VP.

Prather pushed for a sale of Gray’s newspapers before the bottom fell out on that business, and he grew the station group to 31 markets. He also extended the stations’ reach by using their multicast tiers to air major network programming.

Prather’s former charges describe him as a straight shooter with high expectations of them, and a dedicated broadcaster who always put the viewer first. When crises struck, be it Sept. 11 or severe storms, he instructed his general managers to make sure viewers’ needs were the top priority. “It was, do what’s right, do what’s best for your station and your community,” says Chris Mossman, WKYT Lexington (Ky.) VP/general manager.

A Hopeless Bibliophile

Prather won’t go into details about his resignation from Gray last spring, but he says the parting was amicable. “I just felt like it was time to do something different,” he says.

That would be Heartland Media, which scored its first acquisition with a $16 million pickup of WKTV Utica.

When Prather’s not reading prospectus books, he’s reading some sort of book—by his count, there are 15,000 of them, covering history, business, biography and detective novels—clogging his home and office. His collection also includes a section of first editions about explorers in Africa. He says he’s read more than half of the entire collection and plans to donate most of it to Georgia Tech. “I read too much,” he concedes.

He also makes time for television. The father of two sons, Prather likes NCIS and a batch of cable series (“I shouldn’t admit that,” he says) including Suits, Burn Notice and Duck Dynasty. He also is an avid baseball-watcher.

It’s a dicey time to compete against the massive station groups, but Prather’s contacts in the financial community, his business savvy and sterling reputation for integrity give him a fighting chance. Perry Sook, Nexstar president and CEO, is now competing against him in Utica with WFXV. “Bob is a true southern gentleman, but do not let his easygoing demeanor fool you,” says Sook. “He is as intense and focused as they come.”

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.