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Saunders Guides Dallas Powerhouse Through Stiff Challenges

GM of the Year, Markets 1-25: Kathy Saunders, KDFW, Dallas-Fort Worth

Gaining a ratings point in Dallas-Fort Worth is a tall order, with a batch of intensely focused stations doing battle in every daypart. But Fox-owned KDFW, under Kathy Saunders, is inching ahead against stations owned by CBS, NBC and Tegna.

Saunders said the hot news races bring out the best at Fox 4. “This market is so, so competitive, and that’s a good thing,” she said. “It keeps us paying attention and on our toes.”

Fox 4 connects with viewers thanks in large part to the extraordinary connection its talent has with viewers. Saunders, KDFW’s general manager since 1997, noted how comfortably residents approach anchors at community events. The station’s involvement with events in Dallas-Fort Worth, including carnival Mayfest in the spring and the Plano Balloon Festival in September, stokes that relationship. Viewers are similarly comfortable watching the anchors on TV, whether it’s on morning colossus Good Day, late news or the new sports program.

“I think the viewer feels very comfortable with us,” Saunders said. “What they need to know, they know we’ll be there to tell them.”

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The station cranks out close to 60 hours of news a week. KDFW took the sign-on-to-sign-off crown in November, its 1.5 rating in viewers 25-54 topping the 0.9s put up by KXAS and WFAA. It also won 7-9 a.m. news, 5 and 6 p.m., and late news, too. (KDFW airs late news at 9 p.m.)

The station has had a couple big launches of late. Late in 2018, KDFW extended Good Day by another hour. The program now goes 4-10 a.m. The show is a mix of news, anchor banter, chef segments, musical guests and whatever else turns up. “News is a big part of it, but there’s an easier feel,” Saunders said.

Around the same time, Fox 4 premiered the sports show Free 4 All in the 10:30 p.m. slot Sunday through Friday. The program, hosted by Mike Doocy and Samantha Gannon, regularly beats competing late-night programs.

KDFW is also a key player in Fox Television Stations’ program testing strategy. It aired The Wendy Williams Show, TMZ Live and 25 Words or Less in limited runs before they went national.

Saunders has managed KDFW through some frightful challenges. In October, as many as 10 tornadoes whipped through the market. It being a Sunday, chief meteorologist Dan Henry was not scheduled to work, but turned up anyway because that’s the way things go at the station. “We were ready to make sure viewers knew what was going on,” Saunders said.

Station leadership prepares for most any disaster, including tornadoes. But no one anticipated what happened in September 2018, when a troubled man rammed his truck into station headquarters. Michael Fry repeatedly smashed his pickup into the KDFW building around 6 a.m. that Wednesday, then exited his vehicle and began ranting.

Fry was apprehended by police. The building sustained considerable damage, but KDFW stayed on the air throughout. Saunders got the staff together for a reassuring meeting. “She was very calm, very professional, very caring,” news director Robin Whitmeyer said. “She didn’t get riled up and didn’t get emotional.”

Saunders was struck by how the newsroom stayed focused on breaking this big, and a bit too local, story. “They really wanted to keep doing the broadcast, and they did,” she said.

Jack Abernethy, Fox Television Stations CEO, said a general manager has no one in the area to lean on when trouble strikes. “Things happen and you have to lead,” he said. “Kathy was a calming influence.”

Looking Ahead

Saunders is preparing for the future by keeping the station connected to the next generation of viewers. Fox 4 has a whopping 1.5 million Facebook followers, while WFAA has 930,000, KXAS has 852,000 and KTVT has 496,000. She has pushed for a high-energy, digital approach to content delivery. “If it’s important enough to have on the air, it had better be on digital also,” said Saunders.

Abernethy noted KDFW’s “extremely successful” weather app, called Fox 4 WAPP.

Outside of work, Saunders enjoys golf and decorating but said she’s hardly a master of either. “I can’t seem to get my handicap down,” she said, and described herself as a “frustrated” interior designer.

There’s nothing frustrating about her work at KDFW. Abernethy said Fox’s expertly run Dallas-Fort Worth operation makes his job easy. “I don’t have to worry about Kathy at all,” he said. “General managers like her make my job irrelevant.”

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.