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NATPE 2012: Dennis Swanson's One Concern When He Discovered Oprah: Whether She Could Handle Success

Complete Coverage: NATPE 2012

Few execs have – and continue to have – the kind of
impact on the broadcasting business that 2012 NATPE Brandon Tartikoff Legacy
Award honoree Dennis Swanson has. In a wide-ranging interview at NATPE
Wednesday with B&C contributing editor Paige Albiniak, Swanson
discussed his decades-long career. Topics included his early conversations with
Oprah Winfrey (Swanson gave Winfrey her big break) and the future of
broadcasting and Fox TV Stations, where he is currently president of station
operations. Following are some highlights.

On Oprah: "She had a natural ability. It was so
obvious, I'm not sure why other people didn't see it," Swanson said. "I thought, 'Wow, this solves our AM Chicago

"She said to me, 'Are you are sure you want me? I'm
black, I have a problem with my weight, I have terrible hair," Swanson said of
the discussions he had with Winfrey when he was hiring her. "We had a very
direct, pointed conversation."

"She said, 'I'm black,' I said, 'Yeah I got that.'

"She said, 'I have a weight problem.'" Swanson said he
did too. But he said her vulnerability would help people relate to her. He told
her he didn't want her to lose weight. "What I saw on this audition is exactly
what I want to put on air," he told her.

But he did say he had one concern: "I've seen so many
people become successful and they push it right up their nose and I said, 'I
wonder if you can handle success.'"

Winfrey asked whether Swanson really thought she'd be
that successful and he said it would cost him in the negotiation, but told her,
"Lady, I think you'll shoot the lights out."

Retrans: "I've got to give Chase Carey all the
credit. When he came back to News Corp., the retrans arguments and discussions
wound up at his desk and not somebody else's and he understood it," Swanson
says, pointing to the successful carriage agreements the company has made with
numerous distributors, including Time Warner Cable, Cablevision and DirecTV.

"Comcast is at the end of this year," he says. "We've had
the support of Chase and our leadership and it [retrans] will have a tremendous
impact, not just for our local stations but our network. It will give our
network resources to renew the NFL, which we did, and keep quality program on

On broadcast spectrum: "They're going to take us
out of the digital business if they're not too careful," he says. "And if you
take us out of the digital business, we're out of business."

But Swanson also says "things have calmed down a bit." He
points to the experience in Washington during Hurricane Irene, when "Washington
went to over-the-air stations." He says he thinks the experience helped further
educate lawmakers about the value of local television. "We [local broadcasters]
have a role to play in this society and if we use our spectrum wisely hopefully
we'll come out OK."