A year has passed since CBS Television Stations completed the tricky maneuver of crafting a duopoly in the nation’s largest DMA, and several interested parties are calling the $55 million acquisition a win. The pickup of Long Island-based WLNY gave CBS its 10th duopoly, enhanced its syndicated offerings in New York thanks to the buying power of two stations and gave the network a second broadcast platform when major news events hit Gotham.
Peter Dunn, group president and general manager at flagship WCBS, calls WCBS-WLNY a “great marriage” for a range of reasons. “It gave us a ton of flexibility during [Superstorm] Sandy,” he says. “If you didn’t want to watch live coverage on WCBS, you could see your favorite CBS shows on WLNY. We didn’t miss a beat.”
The CBS station group, says Dunn, has not been missing many beats of late. While the network’s primetime has been booming for years, the local outlets are doing a better job of converting lead-ins into local ratings points. Every CBS O&O was rated No. 1 in primetime for February in households, 18-49 and 25-54, for the first time since at least 1994, Dunn says. Late news retention is also the best it’s been in years—the O&Os improved their prime lead-in 3% in February—which insiders say is a function of sharper promos, better internal sharing of hot stories and consistency among talent.
It will take lots more hustle to supplant the ABCowned stations as market leaders, though the CBS stations have withstood a challenge from an NBC-owned group that is much better funded than it was before Comcast’s acquisition.
Leslie Moonves, CBS Corp. president and CEO, can see the group is humming. “The financial results are better, the creative results are better and the ratings results are better,” Moonves tells B&C.
New advertising business was up 50% last year, Dunn adds, with stronger returns from the healthcare and education categories. The group’s Mobile Weather Lab vehicles brand the local CBS station in severe weather, and also generate substantial revenue from auto dealers eager to sponsor the franchise. Stations in Baltimore and Pittsburgh will get Mobile Weather trucks later this year.
The CBS group has weathered some challenges too. Its multicast channel rollout slowed after New York and Philadelphia debuted digi-nets in 2011. CBS takes pride in low talent turnover, but it had a noisy departure in February when WCBS anchor Rob Morrison was arrested following a domestic dispute and resigned. The group’s morning news needs work as well.
But CBS nonetheless appears to be an increasingly desirable place to work. Since September, Dunn has tapped prominent industry vets Mark Lund, former executive VP of sales at the NBC owned group (and son of former CBS president Peter Lund); Marty Wilke, longtime WGN Chicago GM; and Stan Gill, former Acme Communications president, to run stations.
Moonves believes the quality of the group’s chiefs is better than it’s been in some time. “There’s no question we felt there were great athletes available, and we got them,” he says.
Another key hire was Betty Ellen Berlamino, who came on as group senior VP of sales in 2011 and shifted to WLNY boss exactly a year ago.
WLNY went from 3.4 million total viewers in January- February 2012 to 5.3 million during that same point in 2013, a 56% gain. With three Long Island reporters, the station programs 15 hours of New York coverage per week, including a 9 p.m. newscast. The former “TV-55” will add the syndicated Mike & Molly in 2014.
CBS’ arrival on Long Island was seen by media pundits as adding a key second voice in the region, which is dominated by Cablevision, owner of cable net News 12 and newspaper Newsday. Jaci Clement, executive director of the watchdog group Fair Media Council, gives CBS a good grade for its rookie year but wants to see improvement. WLNY’s “hideously out of date” studio on the Island has not been updated, she said, and too many Long Island stories end up on WCBS instead of WLNY. But local coverage, she notes, has increased.
“Our expectations are extremely high,” says Clement. “And we want CBS to meet them.”
WLNY has surpassed its new parent’s expectations thus far. “The idea of having a duopoly in a major city was a great idea for us,” says Moonves. “The chance to run a brand-new station with not a lot of cost, per se, has worked out magnificently.”
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