View through the lens

E.W. Scripps Co.'s station group may be the only one with two key executives who began their careers at the operational end of a camera: Veteran General Manager Bill Peterson, who joined WPTV(TV) West Palm Beach, Fla., this year, started out as a news photographer. And so did the man who hired him: group head John Lansing.

"I have an appreciation for photographers," says Lansing, who notes that it's often the photojournalists who stay on at a station while the news and sales folk move in and out every 18 months. And it's the camera operators, he says, who learn how the station really runs.

Beginning as a cameraman 27 years ago, he says, "I've had about every experience there is to have at a TV station."

It started with a minimum-wage job at WPSD-TV Paducah, Ky., followed by increased responsibility there. Then a move to chief photographer at WAVE-TV Louisville, Ky., in 1980 gave him his first taste of management and took him ultimately to news and news management, to station management, and now to station-group management.

Scripps's television interests comprise a group of local broadcasters in large and medium markets and national cable networks like Home and Garden Television (HGTV), Food Network and Do It Yourself (DIY). While the company may be emphasizing those cable nets, Lansing acknowledges, "we want to show the power of our 10 stations. Local is the key. We are establishing local versions of these cable brands. We're able to generate ratings in these niche categories and provide some unique content.

"We couldn't run an HGTV show that's on the cable system on one of our local stations," he adds. "But it helps the cable operators when we create a local version of DIY. And that's been a fun sell for our stations."

Veteran broadcaster John Culliton, a longtime friend and colleague, believes that, for all Lansing's success, he is hitting his stride as a station-group head. "John's his most thoughtful self right now," Culliton says. "Some guys get in over their heads when they move higher. He's gotten better. He knows the stations inside and out; but he can also dive into a subject and really dissect it. It's a rare combination of vision and detail."

Scripps, with six ABC affiliates among its 10 stations, would like to diversify "so there'll be less reliance on one network. I'd think twice about adding another ABC right now," says Lansing.

Scripps has made two fairly significant acquisitions in the past decade: WMAR-TV Baltimore in 1992 and KMCI(TV) Kansas City, Mo., in 1998. The company, which has its roots in the newspaper business and still owns 21 papers, is watching for opportunities both at the station level and at the regulatory level. "It's like a 30-layer chessboard," Lansing says, "involving duopolies, cross-ownership, regional clusters and networks."

For years, rumors have suggested that Scripps interests are elsewhere and the group might sell its TV stations. "I'd never say 'never,'" Lansing says, "but it seems less and less likely.

"The value of our 10 television stations to this company," he continues, "is beyond their obvious cash flow—which is great in and of itself. Our cross-promotion platform is significant. We cover 10% of the United States, and that gives us the ability to help grow those networks. At the top of my list of strategic initiatives is to increase the cross-promotion between cable and local TV."

Culliton says Lansing is "a broadcaster at heart. John doesn't accept the idea that broadcasters can't retain and grow audiences even though other people in the business treat it like it's a fait accompli. But John's tenacity on the subject is really essential, to be celebrated."