When Comcast took over NBC in 2011, it promptly set out to undo the bloodless “managing for margins” mind-set that existed at the network. Perhaps no division had felt the sting of deep cuts—personnel, equipment, product, morale— more than NBC’s owned stations group.
One of CEO Steve Burke’s first moves was hiring Valari Staab from ABC to run the stations. Inside of two weeks, she scrapped the group’s “NBC Local Media” name for “NBC Owned Television Stations.” In a memo, Staab said the rebrand was “a reminder to all of us that this division is first and foremost defined by 10 great television stations.”
But how to restore that greatness? For starters, Burke put tens of millions of dollars back into the annual budget. (Burke declined to comment.) Staab, with a creative services background, focused on the product. She authorized stunning new station facilities (“Unbelievably nice,” said a rival in Dallas), launched investigative teams, moved promotions back to the station level, added live trucks and reporters, debuted midday newscasts and invested more on audience research. NBC split from news sharing agreements and put helicopters in the air in multiple markets.
Three years since taking over, is Comcast seeing a return on its massive investment? B&C reached out to competitors and other veterans in markets where NBC owns a station, and the results are a mix. WVIT Hartford is highly competitive after years as an also-ran. WNBC New York is in the game once again. WRC Washington hadn’t fallen that far in the first place. But in other markets where the stations had truly cratered, it’s a struggle. “It’s real difficult in this day and age, with all the alternatives out there, to get people back,” said a Los Angeles TV vet.
PRIMING THE PUMP
NBC’s resurgent primetime makes it more challenging to gauge the stations’ success; after all, is it the slick promotables or the big lead-in that’s driving a late-news rebound? “All in all, the fundamentals have been good, but you can’t overlook the Olympics, The Voice, Sunday Night Football,” said a former NBC exec. “Those have been tentpoles for them.”
Common themes pop up from the competition. NBC is more willing to break in live. The investigative teams give the stations highly promotable content. Scrapping of news shares, eschewing what one vet calls the “cheap revenue” of sponsored sports segments and adding an anchor to solo newscasts all show long-term commitment.
“They’ve worked very hard at enterprise content, and enterprise content plays a very big part in making you a winner,” said Steve Schwaid, former senior VP at the NBC group, now a consultant with media research company CJ&N.
Staab initially outlined the turnaround as a three- to five-year plan. There remains much work to do in Los Angeles (“They really don’t have a persona in the market,” said one veteran) and Miami (“I always thought 1 + 1 would equal 4. It hasn’t,” one market vet said of would-be Comcast-NBC synergies there).
It’s mighty hard to pick up ratings points these days, especially in the major markets where NBC dwells. And its rivals are hardly idle.
But the watchers mostly agree that Staab has things moving in the right direction. “I think Steve [Burke] has got to be very happy with the division,” said a former NBC insider. “The stations are his baby.”
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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.