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Focusing on Independents

by Geoff Poister~ April 25, 2006


The NAB Broadcast Management Conference session, "Indies, The CW and My Network TV -- What's Your Next Move?" took a look at how local independent television stations are turning change into opportunity.

This fall, UPN and the WB will cease to exist. Some might consider that a sign to back away from independent network affiliation, but this team of panelists are embracing the newest independent networks instead.

CBS and Time Warner have formed the CW Network, and Fox has rolled out My Network TV, which currently provides a staple of English language "tele-novellas," modeled after Spanish language novellas.

The panelists represent four stations that have chosen to be affiliates of one of the new networks: Mark Antonitis, president and general manager, KRON-TV, San Francisco; Brady Brus, president and general manager, Family Broadcasting Group, Oklahoma City; Doug Gealy, president and COO, ACME Communications, St. Louis; and Bob Prather, president and COO, Gray Television, Atlanta. The session was moderated by Allison Romano, staff writer, Broadcasting & Cable, New York.

Perhaps the session was framed best by a question asked near the end: "Now that UPN and the WB have failed, why do you think these new networks are sustainable?"

"The WB and UPN came out at the same time and spent a lot of time trying to kill each other," Gealy said. "This is different. We have a new model provided by Fox, based on low-cost production, and the new networks are going after different demographics."

All the panelists agreed that focusing on the local market is their key to building an audience and profit.

"There are 500 stations out there, but most people stay with fifteen," Brus said. "We have made a niche by being a family station showing things like high school sports, and our first season has been very successful."

"You've got to do something to localize," Gealy added.

The panelists talked about redefining "success" as something that is profitable instead of relying solely on ratings as a gauge.

To stay profitable, the independents must also produce with fewer resources. News coverage is often managed by a single reporter in the field.

"We now have one person doing the job of four," Antonitis said. "To compete with other O&Os that pour millions of dollars into news operations, we have to do more with fewer people."

"Our satellite truck has just a reporter and an editor," Brus said.

"But I believe it's possible to do good journalism and produce enough content with fewer people," Antonitis added. "People watch news for news, not for anchors."

While this group is gambling on the unproven entities of CW and My Network TV, the overwhelming feeling was one of informed optimism. The results have been positive and profitable thus far. And sparse resources have forced them to creatively pursue additional revenue through new modes of distribution such as Web sites and cell phones.

"It's good for local broadcasters that the WB and UPN went out of business," Gealy said. "They should have done it years ago."

© 2006 NAB