Fox Television Stations CEO Jack Abernethy expanded on the strategic plan for New Fox to focus on live broadcast and repeated his view that in the digital age there should be no limits on station ownership.
“We’re just building on what’s left behind,” he said of the plan for 21st Century Fox’s station, broadcast network and Fox News assets once the rest of the company is acquired by Disney in the coming weeks.
Abernethy made the remarks during on a panel featuring three other top executives in local TV during TV 2020, a conference at the NAB Show New York. “The basis of it,” he said of the strategy, “is that live viewing is still the best opportunity for advertisers. people watch the commercials. It creates an opportunity for distribution. In many cases with news, it’s cost-controlled. Those ratings have held up pretty well as some of the entertainment properties have dropped. So we expect that to be really important.”
A preview of the potential of the strategy came on October 4, a Thursday when Fox News carried the contentious Brett Kavanaugh hearings during the day and Fox had the New York Giants-Philadelphia Eagles game in prime time.
Asked if the other broadcast networks would follow suit and zero in on news and sports even more than they have, Grey TV CEO Hilton Howell III said, “live sports is important. I think CBS and NBC do a great job. I’d like to see ABC pick it up a little bit.” While he added that “not all the world is the NFL” in terms of ratings success, he said he was “sublimely confident” that the broadcast networks would reach deals with the NFL when they come up for renewal in the coming years. “If you are out there in the sports world, you have to have the broadest possible audience.”
Perry Sook, CEO of No. 2 station group Nexstar Media, said digital and traditional broadcast could continue to coexist peacefully in NFL coverage for some time to come. “I don’t think it’s going to be mutually exclusive,” he said, citing promotions for Thursday Night Football on Fox that also point to Amazon streaming of the games. “Of the things I worry about at night, the NFL is not one of them.”
Abernethy pointed to the “large marketing footprint we have as TV stations. That marketing ability is something the NFL or any league will not get if they’re streaming to someone’s phone through an app.”
The regulatory climate in Washington proved another hot topic during the session. The station sector has been reeling from the FCC’s abrupt reversal of its leanings on top station group Sinclair Broadcast Group, whose $3.9 billion deal to buy Tribune Media died a painful death over the summer. At the heart of the review of the merger was the station ownership cap, which the FCC is currently evaluating. Initially, Sinclair-Tribune would have had reach to more than 70% of U.S. households, more than double the longtime 39% limit.
“If you take a step back, it’s indefensible to even have a cap,” Abernethy said, given the intensity of the competition from digital platforms. “If you’re really honest about this business and you really want this business to thrive 10 or 20 years from now, you can’t have a cap.”
Emily Barr, CEO of Graham Media, a small but large-market-dominated group whose reach is just 7%, provided interesting contrast to the “scale matters” views expressed by other panelists. Asked about the 39% ownership cap, she said it should be higher but should still exist.
“I think scale certainly matters on some levels,” she said. “But when you look around at what’s happened in the radio business or other industries, scale matters to a point, but then things are like the Big Bang — they get big and then they tend to fall apart.” She added, “I have worked in big companies. In big companies, it can get very bureaucratic very quickly.”