Mark Cornetta: Rarified Air in Denver

Keeping a powerhouse station on top is certainly a pleasant problem to have, but it’s a big challenge nonetheless. When a station such as KUSA Denver has ruled sweeps for decades, and has been given Station of the Year honors by the Colorado Broadcasters Association for 11 years running, how exactly does a general manager motivate the troops to bring their A-game each day?

Mark Cornetta, president/general manager of KUSA and KTVD, has pushed just the right buttons to maintain mile-high standards at the two Gannett stations. Cornetta now adds B&C’s GM of the Year honor to KUSA’s jammed trophy case as a result.

Gannett Broadcasting President Dave Lougee credits Cornetta for the “longstanding commitment to excellence,” as he calls it, in Denver. “It’s often the instinct of leaders to not risk change, but there’s a tremendous culture of innovation at KUSA,” adds Lougee. “I give Mark and his team great credit for that.”

And 2010 was a standout year, even by KUSA’s lofty standards. While the Winter Olympics are always a hit in DMA No. 17’s winter wonderland, Cornetta and news director Patti Dennis nonetheless pushed reporters to find the compelling local angles, such as the travails of locally based skiing sensation Lindsey Vonn. The station produced 95 original athlete features leading up to the Games, and with eight staffers on the ground in Vancouver, KUSA got exclusive interviews with Vonn and other A-listers. KUSA had the top Olympics ratings in adults 25-54 of any local people meter station in the U.S.—and outperformed the national average among NBC affiliates by 75%.

The year also saw Cornetta, 50, spark a helicopter- share initiative among five Denver stations that he says has freed up resources to chase the hard-hitting investigative work that defines KUSA. The outlet had an existing chopper share with McGraw-Hill’s KMGB, but Cornetta envisioned substantially larger savings by bringing Denver stations owned by CBS, Local TV and Tribune into the mix as well. “It’s worked out very well,” says Cornetta. “It’s allowed us to take better advantage of our resources.”

Cornetta also oversaw a massive centralization of Gannett’s sales inventory traffic operations, now housed at KUSA. He likens the project, which was up and running for all 23 Gannett outlets early in 2010, to “changing the engine in an airplane—while it’s flying.”

Lougee says Cornetta was the right GM to pilot the centralization program. “We knew Mark had the leadership and organizational skills,” he says. “We knew he’d do a good job.”

Amidst the tumult, KUSA still managed to retain its healthy lead in the Denver ratings and revenue race this year. The station continues to win late news, despite NBC’s primetime woes. And so dominant is its morning news that at 6 a.m., it beat the 25-54 ratings of its four competitors—combined.

KUSA and MyNetworkTV sister KTVD added eight hours of local news per week this year, for a total of 56 weekly hours. The additions include a 4:30 a.m. news on KUSA, another half-hour on KUSA on Sunday nights, and 11 a.m. and 9:30 p.m. programs on KTVD.

KUSA is also leading in terms of gathering and delivering news on various digital devices available to broadcasters, such as a full-throttle multimedia-journalist strategy, text alerts that informed users on Election Day and distinct digital channels airing Universal Sports and local weather.

“With the advent of mobile television and all these return paths and social networking, we have a bright future,” Cornetta says. “I’m excited about seeing how we can further engage our community and our viewers and start growing audiences on all these platforms.”

A New Yorker, Cornetta first showed up at KUSA in 1987 and has never left. The station has an outsize presence on the resumes of broadcasting leadership in the U.S.: former Gannett Broadcasting President Roger Ogden ran the station, Fisher Communications President/CEO Colleen Brown spent more than a decade there, and Lougee was KUSA news director in the ’90s.

Cornetta says he’s more focused on keeping KUSA ahead of the pack than contemplating the next chapter in a storied career. He’s also intent on keeping his staff’s commitment to excellence unbowed. “The culture here is that no one ever stops and enjoys [success],” he says. “We’re always looking for what can we do better, what more can we do.”

Lougee says Cornetta’s commitment to the market runs as deep as a Colorado snowstorm. “Mark understands the unique relationship the station has with the community,” he says. “And he understands it’s a privilege to manage that.”

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.