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Swanson’s Blueprint for Fox Stations

Dennis Swanson, the new president of the Fox Television Stations, has made a career of turning laggard stations into contenders. But overhauling Fox’s 35 stations may be the toughest task he’s ever faced.

Most recently the No. 2 executive at the Viacom Station Group, Swanson agreed to a deal with Fox last Thursday. His exodus follows Viacom tapping Tom Kane to be the president and CEO of the stations last month. He will join CEO Jack Abernethy and Chairman Roger Ailes in getting News Corp.’s sluggish stations back on track.

“I like a challenge,” Swanson says, “and this is a challenge.”

Both the Fox and UPN outlets have struggled to find hit syndicated shows. Many O&Os have successful early- morning news, but lose those viewers in daytime. Even as prime time ratings soar on Fox hits like American Idol and House, the stations have difficulty holding viewers for late local news.

Ailes, who masterminded Fox News Channel’s ascent, took over the stations two months ago when Lachlan Murdoch resigned. Abernethy, a former Fox News executive, took up his post last December. Swanson will report to Abernethy.

Under Ailes’ and Abernethy’s guidance, there have already been shakeups at Fox. Geraldo Rivera’s upcoming Geraldo at Large will replace A Current Affair. Last week, Fox News executive Sharri Berg was tapped to be senior VP of news operations for the station group. Insiders say Ailes wants all the station group executives based in New York, and some in Los Angeles, including head of programming Frank Cicha, are already planning to relocate.

Evening News Ahead

Off the bat, Abernethy and Swanson will focus on Fox’s news product. “The only way for us to stay strong in the long run is to make sure our local newscasts are No. 1 or No. 2 in their market, and develop national news and information programming,” says Abernethy.

He and Swanson want a mid-­morning syndicated show and eventually a national evening newscast, and will look beyond television for growth opportunities. “We also have to get into the Internet and wireless businesses,” says Swanson.

In Swanson, Fox gets a veteran who has held high-level station posts at all four major broadcast networks and is respected by syndication executives, news talent and agents alike. Over his 35 years in local TV, Swanson has developed a blueprint for turning around stations, which includes poaching well-known talent from rival outlets and sponsoring major community events to build viewer loyalty.

Friendly Faces at Fox

Swanson started his career in the newsroom. He helped turn KABC Los Angeles and WLS Chicago into powerhouses, briefly ran the ABC-owned station group, and headed ABC Sports. He is also credited with giving Oprah Winfrey her first daytime show in Chicago. In 1996, he took over WNBC New York and helped push it to No. 1. He bolted to Viacom in 2002 after growing dissatisfied with the NBC station group’s move toward centralized management.

At Viacom, Swanson helped former Viacom Stations CEO Fred Reynolds (now CFO for the proposed CBS Corp.) remake the company’s CBS and UPN outlets, most of which were stragglers. Swanson recruited a team of new general managers at Viacom, many of whom he previously worked with, and lured rival talent. Some of the CBS stations, including Miami and San Francisco, improved dramatically, while others still trail.

Swanson will find at least one friendly face at Fox; former WCBS President/General Manager Lew Leone became the new VP/general manager for Fox’s New York duopoly days before Swanson signed his deal. Swanson will need all the allies he can find to turn the Fox stations into winners.