Peter Dunn: The Power Behind WCBS' Rise

Peter Dunn was having a terrific year even before he scored one of the premiere promotions in local television. There was WCBS New York's emergence as a legitimate No. 1 contender in the nation's largest market. There was the in-house ad agency he'd launched that was drumming up considerable new business, and there was the smooth synergy between WCBS and sister radio properties such as WINS and WFAN that bolstered the station's news and sports content.

Then, in November, Dunn was named president of the CBS Television Stations, with oversight of the 29 CBS-owned properties nationwide. CBS Corp. President/CEO Leslie Moonves called Dunn “a terrific leader” who knows how to “inspire the best work from his people.” A very good year got a whole lot better as Dunn—whose wife is named Leslie—began reporting to another Leslie.

Dunn, who's retaining his WCBS duties for the foreseeable future, says he's thrilled by the new challenge. “Every day, I want to learn something new about our business,” says B&C's 2009 Station General Manager of the Year for markets 1-25. “I don't want to stop learning until I retire; then I'll learn how to putt better.”

Dunn's golf game will have to wait. WCBS' surge began when Dunn, who took over the station in the fall of 2005 after a stint as president of sales for the CBS station group, mapped out a strategy to pull WCBS out of third (and at times fourth) place. ABC O&O WABC had ruled the ratings game in the No. 1 DMA for decades, and frustration was mounting at the CBS flagship.

“The place was confused,” says WCBS News Director David Friend. “People didn't know what they should be doing or how they should be doing it.”

After extensive research, Dunn laid out a plan to energize the CBS2 brand. The station played to strengths like health and political reporting and ramped up its community service. WCBS partners with fundraisers such as AIDS Walk, the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure and the Tunnel to Towers Run, which retraces the steps taken by a heroic firefighter on Sept. 11. Dunn typically spends his weekends walking for the various charities. “It's good for the cause, it's good for the station and it's good for the community,” he says. “It's part of the success we've had here.”

Dunn also pushed staffers to focus on their own work—not what the competition was doing. “People don't sit in their living rooms with three or four TVs on, saying, 'Oh my God, they're on first!'” he says. “We didn't worry too much about what the other guys were doing. We just wanted to fix our own home and stay on course.”

Emphasizing the brand over pricey talent—and enjoying CBS' blockbuster primetime—WCBS rose up in the pecking order, taking over the No. 2 slot and, as of this year, started giving WABC a fierce battle for the top spot. Overnight ratings, once hidden from the WCBS hoi polloi, are shared with everyone.

A watershed moment came on Election Day last month, a local breaking-news event Friend says WABC has long owned. “The next day, we woke up and looked at the ratings to find we were the No. 1 station,” Friend says. “For us downstairs, that was validation of all the hard work we put in the last few years.”

The robust ratings continue. Through the first 13 days of December, WCBS averaged a 5.1 household rating in late news Monday to Friday, better than WABC's 4.9.

Dunn has also provided steely leadership throughout the dreadful economic slump. While WCBS was not immune to the heavy layoffs sustained at the O&Os in 2008, Dunn's foresight has enabled the station to get through the lean period with minimal downsizing. “We were ahead of the curve and emerged fairly unscathed,” Friend says. “The station was managed efficiently and smartly.”

Dunn has actively worked local CBS radio properties into the WCBS mix, enriching content and promotional might for all involved parties without adding cost. With CBS' deep batch of local radio assets, it's a strategy that the owned stations are increasingly relying on under the new CBS Local Media division. A late November report on WCBS about a man who was revived after 47 minutes without a heartbeat saw station staffers talking up the story on their sister radio outlets.

“It's a little bit of a DNA change,” Dunn concedes. “But once people get it, they see it's something that's worthwhile for all our assets in a market.”

Then there are projects like Print to Motion, which saw Dunn reengineer the WCBS creative services department to create spots for potential advertisers. The program has been instrumental in bringing new advertisers to the station this year, and local versions have been implemented at some CBS-owned stations around the country.

Such initiatives reveal an executive who's willing to try new approaches. “Peter is not someone who's tied to the past,” says CBS Local Media COO Anton Guitano. “He's always looking for creative ways to move the needle, and it shows in his performance.”

After succeeding Tom Kane as station-group president, the 50-year-old Dunn has been traveling the country to meet with the various general managers and department heads in the group. Besides putting faces with names, he'll be identifying best practices like Print to Motion and KYW Philadelphia's digital newsstands, and helping launch similar projects elsewhere in the group. Seeing the benefits of nurturing talent at WCBS, Dunn also plans to launch an internal site to help staffers find new positions within CBS.

“If we have somebody good and there's an option for them to get a better job, I'd rather keep them in the company,” he says.

Knowing firsthand how innovative ideas often hatch at the station level, as opposed to the group level, Dunn hopes to continue running WCBS as he steers the group. Manhattan's massive CBS Broadcast Center has felt like home since he was a boy, when he'd accompany his father, John, to work at 524 West 57th Street. John held a number of jobs, including manning the audio board (“I thought it was a spaceship,” Dunn recalls) and operating a camera for Captain Kangaroo, before his death of a heart attack at 48.

After long stints at both ABC and NBC earlier in his career, Peter has found a home at the CBS Broadcast Center. That his father toiled in the engine room has instilled in Dunn an appreciation for all aspects of the business. “I love to learn about the ins and outs of the TV station, to go and talk to the departments about news, graphics, finance,” says Dunn, the father of two college-age children. “You can't be a GM and not get yourself involved in all those departments. You have to know everything that's going on.”

Dunn has framed his father's 1964-65 CBS employee ID, showing John J. Dunn in thick glasses and close-cropped hair, and it sits on his desk today. “He'd be proud. My mom would be proud, too,” says Dunn, whose mother Kathleen passed away in 2003. “She wanted me to come here 20 years ago. I had to make a few stops before I got here, but I saved the best for last.”

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.