Tribune's Chief is Second to None

This week, the Television Bureau of Advertising, for the second consecutive year, will hold its annual conference at the Javits Center in partnership with the New York Auto Show, and it expects upwards of 1,000 broadcasters to attend.

During the TVB confab, Broadcasting & Cable will award its second annual Broadcaster of the Year Award to Dennis FitzSimons, the new president and CEO of Chicago's Tribune Co. He runs a giant media company, which owns a dozen prestigious daily newspapers and 27 television stations covering more than 40% of the nation (with stations in nine of the top 10 markets.)

Although FitzSimons has a bigger job than just overseeing broadcast stations, he cut his teeth as a TV sales executive and general manager and has aggressively maintained Tribune's status as a television powerhouse.

For the first time in its 156-year history old-line publisher Tribune Co. has turned to a broadcaster—Dennis FitzSimons—to steer its future course as chief executive officer.

FitzSimons, who receives BROADCASTING & CABLE's Broadcaster of the Year Award at this week's TVB Conference in New York, has been an innovator in the TV business for 31 years, the last 21 years at Tribune. He assumed the CEO spot on Jan. 1.

It was probably just a matter of time, observers say, before a broadcaster ascended to the helm of Tribune.

"It's not surprising, given the aggressive expansion on the TV-station side of their business, the successful partnership they've created with The WB, and Dennis's role in all that," says Bill Carroll, vice president, programming, Katz Media Group. "They've created a real niche in the broadcast marketplace targeting younger viewers. You look at all that, and you have to say, 'Well done.'"

In 1992, FitzSimons was named head of Tribune's TV division, when it owned six stations in six markets. Two years later, he was named president of Tribune Broadcasting.

FitzSimons has been instrumental in making Tribune, with 2002 revenues totaling $5.4 billion, one of the TV industry's most important players. Today, Tribune owns 26 stations in 22 markets with four duopolies; in another five markets, it co-owns TV stations and daily newspapers. Four of those cross-ownership markets were created by the company's $8.3 billion Times Mirror acquisition in 2000, which effectively doubled the sized of the company.

"I can't think of a better choice than Dennis," said another guy with the same first name, Dennis Swanson, executive vice president and COO for Viacom stations, who last year was the magazine's first Broadcaster of the Year.

Swanson and FitzSimons competed when both were general managers in Chicago—Swanson at ABC-owned WLS-TV and FitzSimons at Tribune's flagship WGN-TV—and Swanson clearly admires him: "He's a terrific manager who has demonstrated himself to be one of the country's greatest broadcasters. He adds dignity to the title, and I'm flattered to be included on the same list."

The Fordham University graduate has the crisp, unwrinkled look of a manager from another era. Indeed, Ward Quaal, one of BROADCASTING & CABLE'S Top 100 Broadcasters of the Century and a WGN-TV general manager in the station's early days, notes, "He can handle a tremendous amount of work, and, when he's under pressure, you would never know it."

He is unflappable, says Quaal: "A gentleman's gentleman."

Perhaps Tribune's biggest risk in TV was the decision to align its stations with and take a 25% partnership interest in The WB Network, which launched in 1995.

FitzSimons and his then-boss Jim Dowdle were the biggest proponents of doing the deal inside the company. If it hadn't worked, it's probably safe to say that FitzSimons wouldn't be where he is today.

What made it so risky was that, in the early 1990s, when FitzSimons and Dowdle were pondering TV's future, the Tribune stations were making tons of money as one of the most successful independent-station groups in the country.

"Our profit margins were terrific due mainly to a prime time slate that was dominated by movies and local sports," FitzSimons recalls.

Problem was, that programming formula was being duplicated by emerging cable channels, which meant Tribune's offerings weren't going to look so special five or 10 years down the road. "As we looked forward, we saw there would be more and more options for viewers in those two genres on basic and pay cable," he says.

But, as FitzSimons and Dowdle were mulling future strategies, Barry Meyer, then head of Warner Bros. TV operations, and Jamie Kellner, who had recently departed Fox (having helped build it from the ground up), paid a visit. They had an idea for a new network.

After the meeting, FitzSimons and Dowdle huddled. They could hardly believe their good fortune. They agreed almost immediately that what Meyer and Kellner proposed was the answer to their future TV strategy.

"We realized we were going to need first-run prime time programming, and they had a very good concept," FitzSimons says. "I think they were both kind of surprised at how quickly we bought into it given our success as an independent operator."

The downside? "We realized it was very risky, given our success up to that point. But it was worth the risk given what we thought we saw coming in the years ahead." Last year, for the first time, The WB turned the break-even corner. This year, it's on track to be cash-flow positive.

Wall Street remains impressed with Tribune under FitzSimons's watch. Over the past year, its stock price has been one of the most stable in the media sector, outpacing the major indexes as well as such companies as Viacom, Disney, News Corp., Hearst and Belo.

"Tribune has awesome management depth and a history of strong management succession," says Kevin Gruneich, the publishing analyst at Bear Stearns. "Dennis FitzSimons's ascension to the CEO post is just further indication of this." Although his background is broadcasting, Gruneich says, he's a "quick study and understands the newspaper business well, as he must given the company's pursuit of operational convergence across media."

Other FitzSimons watchers aren't surprised that he has been able to reach the top of Tribune's corporate ladder. Back in the late 1970s and early '80s, he worked for Al Masini, then the hard-driving head of TeleRep, the TV sales rep and programming syndicator. Masini remembers FitzSimons as someone who was clearly on the fast track. "The thing I remembered most about Dennis is that he seemed to be a very balanced person," recalls Masini, now retired and living in Hawaii. "He had everything in good quantities. He was aggressive but, at the same time, not too aggressive. He was diplomatic and had the intelligence and judgment skills required of a top manager. He was tenacious, and he was well-liked by both the clients and the people he worked with."

And he worked well under pressure, says Masini, who applied a lot of it as FitzSimons's boss. But he got the job done at TeleRep, first as account executive selling national spot time for TV stations and then as program salesman, selling Masini's innovative package of original prime time TV movies under the "Operation Prime Time" banner. At the time, OPT was hailed as bold innovation and one of the first concerted efforts to give independent stations (some affiliates, too) fresh programming in prime time.

FitzSimons started his career at Grey Advertising but soon concluded that bigger and better opportunities awaited on the sales side. He jumped to the TV-rep business, where he spent about eight years—first at Peters, Griffin, Woodward, then at Blair and finally at TeleRep.

It was at TeleRep that FitzSimons, a native New Yorker, got his first taste of Chicago, where Tribune is based, as group sales director for TeleRep's office there. That was in the late '70s. In 1980, he returned to New York to sell OPT in midsize and small markets around the country. "I was traveling to five cities a week in those days," recalls FitzSimons. "It was intense."

In 1981, he accepted an offer to run the ad-sales unit of Viacom International, then headed by Ralph Baruch. It was there that FitzSimons had the idea of putting on a version of PBS staple Louis Rukeyser's weekly Wall Street show on commercial TV. It had a two year run.

By then, FitzSimons had moved on to his first TV-station job, as director of sales and marketing at WVIT-TV Hartford, Conn., then owned by Viacom. Shortly after he arrived, though, he received a call from Dowdle, who had recently joined Tribune to run its TV operations. Dowdle was looking for a few good executives to shore up problems at the division. One of those problems was WGN-TV's underperformance, particularly on the revenue side.

The first time Dowdle called, FitzSimons turned him down, having only recently joined WVIT-TV. Months later, Dowdle called again. This time, FitzSimons listened and accepted the top sales post at WGN-TV. The problem at WGN-TV wasn't programming or ratings. Dowdle felt it was being undersold. "So my job was to get the sales research right and then price it right," FitzSimons says. The upshot was that he was able to boost the station's share of revenue in the market by about five percentage points.

His reward was a promotion to general manager of WGNO(TV) New Orleans, which Tribune had just purchased. His mission: bring it up to "Tribune standards." It took about a year to do that, and then Dowdle brought him back to Chicago as vice president of operations, effectively the number-two executive at the TV division. That was in 1985, just after Tribune bought KTLA-TV Los Angeles. Dowdle was spending a lot of time on investor issues, and FitzSimons stepped up to coordinate most of the group's activities and also help integrate KTLA-TV into the group.

In 1987, FitzSimons was promoted again, to vice president and general manager of the flagship station, WGN-TV. It was a heady time in the broadcast business and challenging as well, as dozens of new stations came on the air, sparking bidding wars for available programming. Programming costs skyrocketed, and FitzSimons had the difficult challenge of streamlining the station's operations in order to afford programs.

A major plus for the station was controlling the rights to three popular sports franchises, including the Chicago Bulls basketball team, which was zooming to national prominence thanks to superstar Michael Jordan. Also carrying baseball's White Sox and co-owned Cubs, the station dominated the Chicago sports market. It also attracted additional advertisers because WGN-TV is among a handful of cable "superstations" available to viewers virtually across the country.

But that superstation status didn't go over too well with National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern, who believed that the league should control the station's Bulls schedule since they were telecast nationally. Tribune disagreed, citing national common-carrier regulations over which it had no control. Six years later, both sides got tired of beating each other up in court battles and settled on a 25-game schedule.

"David and I were able to work it out," FitzSimons says. "It's better to be at peace."

Even though WGN-TV is a superstation, Tribune thinks locally wherever it owns properties. While the company has a healthy appetite for acquisitions, FitzSimons says that "perhaps the biggest thing we need to do is increase the amount of localism, which is what makes our stations unique."

He isn't just paying lip service to the notion. Years ago, while at WGN-TV, he founded an annual event called the Bozo Ball, a nod to the kid's programming staple that ran on the station for nearly 40 years. The black-tie event (red nose optional) has raised almost $4 million since its inception. The money has gone to building and maintaining a youth center called the Off the Street Club in one of Chicago's rougher neighborhoods.

Tribune stations and the company itself are very active in their communities. The stations produce 18 newscasts in 22 markets. The corporation makes numerous contributions to local communities through the McCormick Tribune Foundation.

Still, says FitzSimons, for a broadcaster, there's no such thing as too much localism. If it's done right, communities benefit, and it's good for business. "In a sea of basic-cable networks," he says, "broadcasters have an edge by serving communities well."