A voice for network affiliates

I think the television industry is going to reinvent the term 'strange bedfellows,'" muses Jim Keelor, president of Cosmos Broadcasting and a leading advocate for network affiliates. "I've been fairly active in industry groups. When you're involved in industry groups, you have to deal with issues in the forefront of the business. The network relationship is one of those."

He sees the affiliate-network business model changing. "The challenge of the group operator is to see if he can make that change in a positive direction. You have to look for other business partners to do what the networks have done in extending the business base: extending the brand."

Keelor suggests that, in 10 years, "the network relationship may not be the most important one for local stations. We've enjoyed a lot of success with network partners, and I see that partnership continuing. But the dominant local stations will be looking at spectrum businesses, Internet businesses [and] other programming sources."

In an era of expanding media, he believes, the networks might have done better to maintain the traditional close affiliate-network relationship. "For no more compensation than the networks are currently paying," he says, "they could have enjoyed two additional means of distribution. The networks have been shortsighted in not securing affiliates digital spectrum and affiliate digital Internet services. I think that's a shame.

"Had the network-affiliate relationship been as it should be, they would be each other's primary partners in two or three new and different kinds of businesses [such as] Internet applications and e-commerce." The networks have erred, he maintains, "by not recognizing the affiliates' value when considering compensation. They could have leveraged the most efficient means of distribution."

Keelor has also emerged as a leader in opposing raising the cap on network station ownership. The cap, he says, "is very important if we're going to maintain the importance of local stations for communities; if we're going to maintain a diverse media base. The whole free, over-the-air system is threatened if the networks can cover up to 50% of the nation."

Jim Beloyianis, president of rep firm Katz Television Group, sits with Keelor on the executive board of the Television Bureau of Advertising, and describes his colleague as "one of the class acts in the business. I've known Jim Keelor for well over 20 years, from back when he played more basketball than golf."

When Keelor began in television more than 30 years ago, it was not the big picture for the small screen but the next story that had his attention. Following two years as an Army officer-which included a stint in Vietnam-he started his career as a news reporter and producer.

Before long, he found himself working for a network, NBC, in a major market, Cleveland. But he knew he wanted to run TV stations, so Keelor took an opportunity to become news director at WAVE-TV Louisville, Ky., with the promise of a move into station management. He became general manager there when Cosmos bought station-owner Orion Broadcasting, and later moved to New Orleans to run WDSU(TV). He moved to the Cosmos home office in Greenville, S.C., in 1989 and became company president three years later.

Cosmos is already venturing into non-traditional relationships with other media. The company has set up a subsidiary, Cable-Vantage, to sell advertising for cable operators that don't have their own advertising sales force. Launched in 1998, Cable-Vantage has performed work under contracts with Time Warner and Mediacom.

The company has also acquired franchises of Super Coups, a direct coupon company dealing principally with small businesses. Upon entry into the direct-marketing business, Keelor cited the "great synergy with our television and cable sales operations."

Cosmos could soon gain additional independence to pursue additional business relationships. Parent Liberty Corp. has hinted that a restructuring-likely to split Liberty's broadcasting and insurance subsidiaries-could come this year.

"Everyone has a niche," Keelor says. "Our niche, thus far, is to be the operator of medium to small television stations with a special relationship to the community and advertisers. In any of our markets, our local call letters are much more important than the network brand. Fortunately, in 10 of our 12 markets, we're the dominant station. We have a special relationship with the viewers that other media cannot duplicate. I'm personally very enthusiastic about the future of broadcasting."