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Making 'Great TV,' and Doing It Daily

Alan Frank, Post-Newsweek president and CEO, will retire at the end of the year, but not until he trains his successor, Emily Barr, the former WLS Chicago general manager, who starts in mid-July. One of the most respected figures in U.S. broadcasting, Frank oversees six stations and wields considerable influence on policy matters in Washington. Frank, who will be inducted into the B&C Hall of Fame in October, shared with B&C deputy editor Michael Malone what's on his mind. An edited transcript follows.

What made Emily Barr the right choice?

She loves broadcasting. She's very bright, she's creative, and has a very nice way with people-people like to work for Emily and like to work with her. She has a good reputation with everybody-syndicators, the networks, everyone. We felt she had the right values. We're a company with strong values-we believe in strong journalism, in serving our communities, in treating people well, and thought Emily had all that and more. I thought she was a great choice for the future and, thankfully, she agreed, our company agreed, everybody agreed. It was a good match.

Tell me a bit about how the training will go with Emily.

She's going to go to all our stations and introduce herself and meet everybody, then we'll spend a couple months together talking about planning. Emily understands the business. We'll show her the culture, how we do things, some of the surprises, some of the things she may not have had [at WLS]. We have a design hub, a traffic hub, a certain way of doing things that may be different. I just want her to understand those things; she can change them or not, but she should understand what the culture is and how it operates. Then we'll be in budgets season. In October, you go around to all the stations for budgets and talk about them and approve them. Then it's November, and you figure out how you want to proceed. 

Tell me about your history with Emily.

I've known her for 30 years. She worked for one of my closest friends, Arnie Kleiner, in Baltimore. We'd been together at WBZ Boston and WJZ Baltimore in the ‘70s when he was sales manager and I was program manager. I met Emily when she worked for him in Baltimore in the early '80s.

As of Jan. 1, are you gone?

Gone, gone, gone. I'll be around to answer questions, but I am gone. Emily knows her business and knows what she's doing-she doesn't need me looking over her shoulder. I'll be there as much as she needs me, but I think she'll be great.

How is the second half of the year looking?

Good. I'm feeling very optimistic. I was on record [a few years ago saying] we were going to have some very good years ahead of us, and that's turned out be true. [To me] 2010 came back strong. 2011 was a good year, and '12 is an even better year. I think the next five years will be strong. I never predict more than five years in anything. But I feel very confident that we'll do very well.

Do you see a lull in business for next year?

I always look at core business. It's about the retailers, the people we do business with all the time-how they're doing is very important for us because that's where we're going. We have a lot of new initiatives to add to the core client base in all our markets, and it's been quite successful.

Obviously, political is a very important category, and we work hard at it. We're in the Washington shops all the time-we have a great reputation, and very good ties into those communities. These days there's lots of issues money. Depending on the market, it can be in the off years as well.

Obviously, political is a significant category every other year, but you have to look at two-year patterns, or judge even years versus even years, and odd years versus odd years.

What do you have planned for the Olympics?

Our two biggest stations are NBC stations, and they've had very good selling seasons. They've had a lot of interest in the Olympics, perhaps because it's London, or because of the success NBC has had with the last couple of Games, but there's strong interest. It's not only on the part of clients, but on the part of viewers too. Our stations will send reporters there-we have a lot of things going on that I think will make for strong coverage.

How do you describe a Post-Newsweek TV station?

We have a simple motto: "Great TV. Every day." We really believe content is first, and we work very hard to put everything on the screen every day. Nothing is ever perfect-[as] soon as you're done with one show, you have to prepare for the next-so you never get things absolutely perfect. But we work very hard to hire the best people we can ! nd and let them be [as] good as they can be.

We really try to stress great product. We admire creativity. We focus on understanding our communities. We want to be the market's news leaders, not just [among] our television competitors, but the news leaders across all media. We believe in our ability to make a difference. That's why most of us are in local television, where you can still make a difference. We have some very large markets, but in the largest or smallest market, you can make a big difference almost daily. And it's very satisfying.

That's how we recruit the people we want with those values. We work very hard in our communities to do "Great TV. Every day." That's how we simplify our mission.

Does Post-Newsweek have any affiliation agreements coming up?

No; all we're settled in.

You'll never have to deal with that again?

[Laughs] I made an offer to [CBS executive vice president/retransmission consent negotiator] Marty Franks to go into business with him-we could be Franks & Frank. We could help each other out. He hasn't taken me up on it. I'm not sure why. [Laughs]

Post-Newsweek almost bought WTVJ Miami in 2008, and you told me last year you remained interested. Would you still like to own it?

Oh, I would love to. Until very recently I tried very hard to find a duopoly or two for us. I think duopolies are a very good way to go. WTVJ would've been a duopoly force in Miami-it would've been remarkably successful. I kicked some tires on some things but it just hasn't worked out. It's because of the rules more than anything else. I'm not as interested in really minor networks as I am in finding ways to combine things. But it hasn't worked out.

A number of Fox affiliates have been cut loose, and the newly independent stations look at what Post-Newsweek has done with WJXT Jacksonville. I know the station got some calls from GMs at these newly independent stations-

Hourly! [Laughs]

So, what's the key to thriving after splitting from the network?

We were already a strong news station, so we literally doubled the amount of news we were doing. And we've added to that. That's the model we used. If you're not a strong news station, you can't use that model-it's tough to expand your product if you're not winning or close to winning. We also had a lot syndication winners stockpiled in the off chance that things would go south-Oprah and ET and Inside Edition. We had a lot of good shows working for us and that was important.

You have to have the right management-people who are aggressive, people who want to control their own destiny, people who are not afraid, people who are good journalists, people who work hard to sell the value of a local station in the community, and that's what we did. That's what we do.

NBC's proxy arrangement for retrans has been up and down, rumored to be dead, still alive. The way it stands now, does it serve any benefit for affiliates, or is it more of a non-factor?

I don't know where it's going to go. For a company like ours, it's a tough call because in many of our markets we have the same MSOs and the same satellite carriers. So we negotiate across our markets-all of our stations at once. If you go with any particular network, you may help those stations but you leave the others out. It's a call we have to make.

What remains the biggest concern coming out of Washington?

[Laughs] There are three areas of concern at this moment. There are probably 10 of them, but I'll do three.

Spectrum, of course: My focus from Day One has been those broadcasters who did not want to go to the auction. The concern for me is not the auction but those who don't want to [be part of it]. And how the auction involves repacking, how that affects those of us who want to remain broadcasters and stay committed to serving the community, who have no interest in selling spectrum. Unfortunately the FCC, [Chairman Genachowski] has chosen to never show us a model of how this works, because that would've been easier. And the other thing is this reverse auction-you have to do both in a short time frame; it's very difficult to pull that off. I'm not sure how it's going to work, if at all.

For many companies, the border concerns are very significant. The model we have shows there will be no more Detroit television if this happens. The FCC says we are overreacting, but we have serious engineers and scientists from our MSTV [Maximum Service Television] days now at the NAB tech labs. We've run the models and the FCC never shows us anything different. The models we have show no broadcasting. I'm not sure what they're going to do about that.

The other [issue] would be retransmission consent. It's odd that the MSOs were the folks who started all this by saying, no, we're not going to pay you, we're just going to give you more channels, which many companies jumped on, including the networks. Then they decide bundling is a sin against humanity. We now seem to have passed that phase-everyone is getting compensated in some form. I don't know where it's going to go, but clearly the market is working and people need stay out of it and let the market continue to work.

Lastly, the one that came up most recently-the issue of putting political files online. It's just unfortunate. A number of us banded together and offered what we think is a better idea to the FCC. The public interest groups think somehow someone is pulling the wool over their eyes. The FCC hasn't looked at it yet and we hope they do. We absolutely believe-and I talked to a number of reporters, including some at Politico-who said they hope this gets pushed through, because it's a much better system for journalists. We'll put all the pertinent information online-it'll be easier for people to read. It's the amount of the buy, who buys it, the length of the buy-that's what people want to know. We [would] put up more information than is now required by McCain-Feingold.

What we don't want to put up are individual rates for a bunch of reasons. One, we think it's anti-competitive. Two, we think it will cause endless confusion. Someone will say, how come this guy paid $10,000 for one spot, and this guy paid $5,000 for 50 spots? Well, this one bought overnight, and [that one] bought a spot in the Super Bowl. If you don't know how to read sales contracts, you will not know what you're looking at, and they're not the easiest things to read. Anyone who wants that information can come to the station and look at the public file because it's there.

We think our idea is a better idea. Unfortunately, we're against people who have an agenda and the agenda has nothing do with the consumer or policy. It's simply their agenda and it's unfortunate. We hope our petition for reconsideration is read and considered. We hope.

What do you count among your career highlights?

I came to Post-Newsweek six months after they had traded for WDIV in Detroit. It was a really poorly performing station-it was literally fourth, and in those days there were only three networks. They were behind the independent in the market. I made a number of quick changes as programming manager and they worked. We got some demos in the February book, and the general manager told me, that's really good-we weren't sure we'd ever get an 18-49 demo.

I went home to my wife and said, "My goodness, what have I done?"

There was a great sense of pride in being one of the driving forces in defining what WDIV would become, then overseeing it getting there. It is widely regarded as a great station, one of the top NBC performers in the country. I take a lot of pride in that.

We had a spectacular team. Many are still here. Over the years running Post-Newsweek, I've had a lot of satisfaction in watching our stations do some rather remarkable things. I've also had a lot of satisfaction with my colleagues on trade groups, helping the industry move in directions we thought were important.

Are you feeling a little senioritis, like it's the last few days of school?

No. Emily hasn't even started yet. I try not to think about it. When I was in Vietnam, you called them short-timers-guys who would count [the days they had left]. I always felt that was the worst thing I could do. Pay attention to where you are and do what you're supposed to do, and suddenly it's over. That's the way to do it. Anything less, you just get in trouble.

What are your emotions at this stage?

Very excited. I've been planning this for a couple years. I'm 68 and I thought I might retire at 65, and [Washington Post Co. Chairman/CEO] Don Graham and I talked at some length, and he convinced me stay on. He said, "I'll agree that you won't work past 73." [Laughs] I agreed to stay through 2012. I have a lot of other things I'd like to do, including spend time with my grandchildren, so I just thought it was time. I started looking for who would replace me, and chased after Emily for quite a while, and it worked out.

As of January 1, are you gone?

Gone, gone, gone. I'll be around to answer questions, but I am gone.

Emily knows her business and knows what she's doing-she doesn't need me looking over her shoulder. I'll be there as much as she needs me, but I think she'll be great.

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