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Now batting for CBS: Swanson

Baseball analogies abounded last week when Viacom brought broadcasting superstar Dennis Swanson out of his two-day retirement from the top team in TV to operate its cellar-dwelling station group.

"I want to be like the New York Yankees," says Viacom TV Station Group President Fred Reynolds, to whom Swanson will report. "I want to win. I want to have a bench like the Yankees. I don't want to be number three," he said, conceding that, in some markets, "third might be an improvement."

Swanson is hardly the first free agent for the station group, which has brought in other highly regarded station executives without rising much in the local-viewership standings: John Culliton and John Severino in Los Angeles, Hank Price in Chicago, and Joel Cheatwood in New York, just to name a few.

But none aroused as much hope within CBS as Swanson has. "We're in awe," said Reynolds. "We're all giving each other high-fives."

Swanson has already made his first two moves. Within hours of his hiring, he bumped WCBS-TV GM Tony Petitti up to senior vice president for station operations and replaced him at the station with Lew Leone, the vice president of sales at WNBC(TV) and vice president of sports and Olympics sales for NBC. He earlier held sales positions with ABC Sports and ABC National Television sales.

Prior to becoming GM at WCBS-TV, Petitti was senior vice president of business affairs and programming for CBS Sports. In that role, he helped re-land NFL broadcast rights. Swanson and Petitti worked closely at ABC Sports, and Swanson is godfather to one of Petitti's children. "He's smart, and the division is so big, it's going to need his help," says Swanson. "And it clears the way to bring in Lew Leone."

At WNBC, Swanson was replaced by Frank Comerford, executive vice president of sales and marketing for NBC stations since 1999. The 23-year broadcasting veteran was head of sales for WNBC before that.

By the FCC accounting, the Viacom station group is the nation's largest, comprising 40 CBS and UPN stations that cover nearly 40% of TV households. Swanson's task is turning around the CBS stations. It will not be easy. The large-market CBS stations in particular have been underperforming for years. According to BIA Financial, none of its eight stations in the top 10 markets ranks greater than third in revenue and most are fourth or fifth.

"In just the top three markets," says Merrill Lynch media analyst Jessica Reif Cohen, "there is an estimated $250 million cash-flow gap between NBC's and CBS's performance."

But Cohen is a Swanson fan: "We believe that Swanson will be able to capture the upside inherent in the recent big improvement in the demographic delivery of the CBS Television network."

Others applauded the move. "Dennis just knows what to do," says a station consultant. "He did it in Chicago, he did it in L.A., and he's done it in New York. He figures out how to beat you. He's a leader."

As a manager at KABC-TV Los Angeles, ABC Sports, WLS-TV Chicago and WNBC, Swanson was known for developing talent. His protégés now run stations for NBC in San Diego, Chicago and Providence, R.I., and for CBS in Miami and Los Angeles.

Reynolds appreciates the talent. Recent hires of Viacom general managers in Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and now New York have all come from outside the company, and the general manager's slot at KPIX-TV San Francisco has been open for months.

The industry was abuzz last week on what his next move might be. "How many NBC executives who are not under contract is Dennis on the phone with already?" asked a Swanson admirer.

Much of the speculation at CBS centered on Joel Cheatwood, the controversial group news director who has thus far has not revived CBS's many struggling newscasts. Some CBS watchers felt he would not last long under the Swanson regime, but others say he will be needed to manage the large number of stations in the group—at least for a while.

Reynolds says the men have a mutual respect and share the desire to be No. 1. In an interview, Swanson would not address Cheatwood's future, and Cheatwood could not be reached for comment.

NBC executives were upset by the Swanson defection, believing on Friday, July 12, that he had retired from the business, but learning last Monday with the rest of the industry that he was merely changing teams.

Some observers felt that Swanson was increasingly unhappy at NBC because of the network's deep involvement in centralcasting—that is, operating multiple stations from a central hub.

But Swanson says the move was mostly financial. "Stocks are one of the ways companies hold onto people. My stock options [in NBC parent General Electric] were valueless at this point. Viacom's got a great balance sheet. I'm 64 years old, and I'm not going to have that many more times at bat."