Steve Schwaid is the eyes and ears for NBC Universal's 30 TV stations. The senior VP of news and programming keeps watch over national news and local stations on 14 monitors in his office. He sends out flurries of e-mails each week on the stations' best efforts, such as a recent shout-out for a Webcast at WVIT Hartford, Conn. He helps local managers work through budgets and updates them on technology.
“He unifies the division,” says NBC Universal Television Stations President Jay Ireland. “He makes sure we're utilizing our resources most effectively.”
Schwaid amassed his expertise over three decades in local broadcast, where he earned a reputation for turning around news operations. He advocates intense weather coverage and relentless breaking news. Schwaid is also known for being hands-on: He once clashed with a weathercaster over the talent's preference for wearing turtlenecks on-air.
The guidance Schwaid dishes out is more crucial than ever to NBC Universal. Most of its owned-and-operated stations are top players in their market, but, with prime time sagging and ABC's Good Morning America challenging the Today show, they need to be innovative to keep their edge. NBC's Telemundo stations, meanwhile, are expanding local news as they take on juggernaut Univision.
Schwaid believes stations need to look at alternative distribution platforms, such as online and wireless products. “I look at us as content-casters,” he says. “Broadcasting is a big part of what we do, but we have to create content that can go anywhere.”
The pace of television
For a guy on the cutting edge of technology, Schwaid's jobs after graduating college in 1976 were pretty low-tech. “TV wasn't a dominant force,” he recalls, so he jumped into the newspaper industry. His first job was editing at a small newspaper in Lincoln, Neb.; his next, reporting for a paper in Dayton, Ohio.
But over time, Schwaid craved a faster pace. “Print is a slow process,” he says. “I like things that happen quickly.”
After getting turned down for a job at the No. 2 station in town—he says the news director told him he didn't have the looks for TV—Schwaid lobbied the news director at top-rated WHIO for an audition. He shot a demo piece about a dog trainer and landed a job as a reporter. But after several years on-air, he itched to be a decision-maker in the newsroom.
Stints in Charlotte, N.C., Tampa, Fla., and Philadelphia followed. He landed his first news-director job at CBS affiliate WGME Portland, Maine, but his biggest challenge came in Hartford at WVIT, then an NBC affiliate. The station was last in late news. “We had to change the direction of the ship,” he recalls.
Schwaid's battle plan then, as it is today, was to own breaking news and weather. His hands-on style was evident then as well. Shortly after the Oklahoma City bombings, there was a scare at the federal courthouse in Hartford. Schwaid wanted a live truck on the scene immediately, but no one at the station could drive one. So he grabbed the keys and operated the truck himself for four hours.
Ever since, Schwaid has made a point of keeping one foot in the field: “You have to understand what crews are dealing with and what viewers are feeling.”
WVIT moved to No. 1 in late news. But Schwaid faced a bigger challenge after moving to news director for NBC-owned WCAU Philadelphia, a market dominated by ABC-owned WPVI. “In Philadelphia,” he says, “people watch a lot of TV and have big demands and high expectations.”
It was the 1999-2000 season, and NBC's Must See TV was red-hot, giving WCAU a boost. Still, Schwaid says, the station had to compel viewers to tune in. Again, his team emphasized weather and only the most pressing stories. The criterion was immediacy: “Does the story have to run today? If not, it is not news,” he says. WCAU ended WPVI's 25-year streak by winning the ratings battle for 11 p.m. news (although WPVI has since regained the top spot).
On to station management
Ireland rewarded Schwaid with his first station-management job: overseeing the conversion of KNTV San Francisco to an NBC affiliate and, ultimately, an O&O. It wasn't easy. The network had dropped its longtime affiliation with Young Broadcasting's KRON and was moving its Bay Area operation to a former independent station in San Jose. The station didn't reach about 400,000 homes over-the-air in the market.
Schwaid truly shone during the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, during which KNTV emerged as a top-rated outlet for the Winter Games. “It showed me people would watch us,” he says. “We just had to make sure we had the content.”
The latest stop on Schwaid's TV odyssey is New York. Even though he was reared in Manhattan, he has kept his home in Philadelphia. Boarding the 6:52 train each morning, he surfs local Web sites on a laptop and fires off e-mails to station managers. Colleagues expect such intensity. Says Ireland, “Steve is constantly on. He's committed and loves the news.”
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