Roger Burchett wants to change your channel

Few people get to work earlier than Roger Burchett. Bo Sykes and Whitney Holmes do, but as early-morning anchors of the live broadcast from the Charlottesville Newsplex, they have good reason to haul their tails to work by 2:00 in the morning. But Burchett, general manager of the operation that Gray Television established 18 months ago south of Downtown, could probably get away with coming in at, say, 6am—7, even. Instead, Burchett, who radiates the energy of an impeccably groomed human spark plug no matter what the hour, is behind his desk at 5am on a recent Tuesday morning. He’s returning viewers’ e-mails from the previous day, a habit he’s kept since his first day on the job (when the station was housed in a tiny trailer in the parking lot).

   His approach to winning over Char-lottesville’s TV audience, Burchett says, is “one viewer at a time.” It’s a mantra that’s repeated by everyone—from sales staff to engineers to on-air talent—throughout the stations’ gleaming 8,000-square-foot facility on Elliott Avenue. And if that means handling complaints or comments personally, hey, bring it on. “When somebody calls to say, ‘Why are they pronouncing “especially” “ex-pecially,”’ I love that call,” Burchett says. “That means somebody’s watching. And the people in this community aren’t going to put up with anything less than a high level of execution.”

   To succeed in Gray’s unusual endeavor—starting a trio of local TV stations from scratch—elevated standards would seem inevitable inside the newsplex, too. In practically no time at all (actually since October 2004) Gray has installed three local network affiliates. There’s WCAV 19, the flagship CBS station; WVAW 16, the ABC station; and WAHU 27, the Fox station. But outside the walls there looms something that, by rights, should be more daunting: WVIR NBC 29, the self-professed “most powerful station” in the state, which had ruled the market as a solitary monarch for three decades before Gray blew into town.

   If his career path is any indication, going up against the big guy doesn’t faze Burchett. Now 51, he spent 22 years working in sales for Pepsi, 12 of them in Atlanta, Coke’s world headquarters. For eight years he was a regional manager at Rawlings, too, working under the shadow of Russell Athletic, what he calls “a powerhouse” in that industry.

   But in fact, Burchett insists, Channel 29 is not the competition.

   Say, what?

   “We’ve got to get by the Richmond stations first.”

   Burchett’s mission amounts to this, then: Tweak local viewers’ habits. Keep them hooked on “Desperate Housewives” and “American Idol,” but get them to watch those shows on Charlottesville stations, which, unfortunately for him, are higher on the dial than the Richmond affiliates. Hence, the challenge.

   How does he plan to do that? Every-body at the newsplex knows the answer: one viewer at a time.

 

Though she’s been prepping the 5am newscast since midnight, Whitney Holmes practically percolates with energy as she reads her outros to the weather segment and headlines and so on (the live newscast beams simultaneously to ABC and CBS viewers until 7am). Seated with her behind WCAV’s lustrous, modern anchor desk is morning mate Bo Sykes. He too is a 24-year-old who relocated to Charlottesville for the job. During commercial breaks, they answer a bleary-eyed reporter’s questions about the pleasures of living here (Humpback Rock, Monticello) and the advantages, if that’s the right word, of working the early shift (“You can show more of your personality on the morning show,” Sykes says).

   Like virtually everyone at the stations, these two talk about the “fun” they have at work. Absent is any suggestion of the off-camera neuroses and hostilities among co-workers that are so familiar to fans of Network or Broadcast News. “Most people here have a similar personality type—fun loving,” says Holmes.

   That’s no accident. Burchett apparently adheres to the hiring philosophy of Gray TV President Robert Prather, the guy who plucked him out of sporting goods and threw him into television: “Hire for attitude, train for skill.”

   Beth Duffy crossed the street from NBC 29 last month, leaving the morning anchor job there after more than seven years to join the sales group at the Charlottesville Newsplex. “You walk into this building and you just feel the energy,” Duffy says. “It’s definitely a team.” (Duffy demurs when matters of direct comparison between the rival news organizations comes up. “I left there on good terms,” she says.)

   Besides the huge pleasure she takes from now working normal hours, Duffy is glad to be part of a start-up. “What better way to learn a new part of the field than to get into something on its way up?”

   Yes, it’s ascending, but Gray’s operation is not exactly a superstation. The month of May will bring another round of Nielsen ratings, a standard measure of TV viewership. Two of the three newsplex stations don’t register in the Nielsen grid at this point, and, according to federal filings, WCAV, with 10 percent of the local market, has the lowest market share among any of Gray’s 36 properties. Don’t get Burchett started on this subject. Because Char-lottesville is such a small TV market (186th nationwide out of 212), Nielsen viewers—those people whose watching habits are extrapolated to represent most households in the area—hand-record their viewing diaries. In big markets, a device attached to the TV performs this task. Inaccuracies are sure to proliferate with handwritten diaries, but Burchett’s not about to whine on that point. He stresses growing community outreach and new advertisers as other significant measures of growth.

   According to Jim McCabe, the newsplex’s general sales manager (and, like Duffy, a transplant from WVIR), at least 100 of their advertisers are newcomers to TV. In addition, McCabe and Burchett support an ambitious platform of nonprofit commitments. In one recent week alone, this reporter attended three separate arts events at which WCAV, WAHU and WVAW staff were introduced in front of the curtain as corporate sponsors. Social service nonprofits get their share of personal attention, as well. Burchett says people regularly remark that he and his staff are “everywhere,” and I can believe it.

   That pervasive energy that Duffy recognized when she first walked through the door, and which Burchett says he spots “by gut,” has had a visible effect on WVIR, too.

   Maurice Jones, former director of communications for the City of Charlottesville, asserts, “Many at NBC 29 would agree they were complacent before the newsplex came in.” Jones also worked at NBC 29 for five and a half years as a sports announcer and producer before joining the City’s operation (he is now the development director at UVA’s Miller Center). “NBC 29 has responded the way you’d expect.” Namely, with a new set, attempts at livelier writing, and more with-it graphics. “I strongly believe WVIR is a stronger station today because of the competition.”

 

They say that ex-catchers make the best general managers in baseball because the catcher is the guy with the widest view on the game. The good ones know how to manage the players’ egos, especially the pitcher’s, but fundamentally a catcher’s position requires that he see the enterprise in terms of “team.” That’s a good perspective for a manager.

   Roger Burchett likes this theory when I mention it to him. He likes it because he’s a sports guy, with a capital “S,” who has a healthy regard for catchers, and because he likes to think in terms of team. One of his two sons (now both grown) was a catcher with the University of Georgia Bulldogs. With a father’s pride and still-fresh-seeming apprehension, Burchett will describe the stress of watching his son play in the College Baseball World Series. His breath gets a little short; it could have been just yesterday.

   Burchett too played at catcher, growing up in a tiny corner of southwestern Ohio that he likens to the set of Hoosiers. “Everything centered around sports: ‘How good are the boys gonna be this year?’ that kind of thing. We had the old-time coaches who would not make it today—it was almost like going through boot camp.

   “That kind of competitive environment drives you to just want to win at all costs,” Burchett admits. “Finishing second means you didn’t win. There is no good thing associated with finishing second.”

   But back to the catcher model: The people who work with him describe Burchett as collaborative, a guy who takes a lot of input. He won’t accept second place, but he doesn’t expect to reach the top by willfully hurling the ball any which way. If Burchett’s life were Bull Durham, he’d be Crash Davis, not Nuke LaLoosh.

   “I came from a station that was heavily micromanaged,” says News Director Jeremy Settle, who left a Washington TV station for a promotion at the newsplex. “Roger says, ‘You know what needs to be done, so do what needs to be done.’ Roger gives you the ball and let’s you run with it. He’ll say, ‘Straight up, give me your input. How have you addressed this at other places?’ That’s the attitude you need to be successful.”

   Clearly sensible, Burchett really has no choice but to hand off plenty of autonomy to his eight department heads—the people he calls his “brain trust.” Burchett had not worked a minute in TV before Prather offered him the job.

   “I didn’t know anything about the television business, but here’s the beauty of career changes,” he says. “You start to learn that certain things are elementary to every business you’re in…You have to outwork your competitor, your word has to be good. You have to surround yourself with people who think the same way and are as passionate as you are about whatever the vision is.”

   For Prather, Burchett’s inexperience in media was of no concern. In fact, Gray TV has four managers spread among its 30 markets nationwide that previously had no TV background. “Roger is a very optimistic person, a great people person,” Prather says. “He’s a great sales person and he’s very bottom-line oriented.

   “Roger, if anything, he works too hard. I think he loves what he’s doing, and 80 percent of anything is the buy-in.”

   Of course, even the best catchers suffer a few passed balls.

   Burchett acknowledges some missteps in the early months. He shouldn’t have been so shy to market WCAV, the first affiliate to go on air, he says. “All my instincts have always told me, ‘Just be Bullmoose Jackson and run through everything, run through the ring of fire in a gasoline suit and don’t worry about it. You can clean up the mess later.’ I got hesitant for about a six-month period where I didn’t promote this entire entity as hard as I should have because I kept saying, ‘I don’t want to call us a news organization when we’re not doing news shows.’” (WCAV launched its 6pm newscast in November 2004, three months after the station went on the air. The Newsplex stations now broadcast two news shows in the morning, one at noon, one at 6pm, one at 7pm, one at 10pm, and two at 11pm. On weekends, there are five local newscasts.)

   “I forgot about ‘Desperate Housewives,’” Burchett says. “That’s where I could have gotten some of that Richmond [affiliate] audience early on. Say ‘watch it locally because we have local commercials.’”

 

Gray TV is bullish on the university demographic, including Char-lottesville, in what Prather calls 17 “major college towns” where it runs TV stations. But hooking an educated, affluent viewer with only “Lost” and “CSI” is last year’s model—a sure way to establish a respectable second-place standing. The future is new media, Prather says. “We’re content providers. That’s what our major job is: to give people news and local coverage where, when and how they want it.”

   To that end, Burchett & co. are all over the changes they’re making to the Charlottesville Newsplex website and the product they’ve just launched to stream news, in text format, to mobile phones and Blackberry-like devices (www.cbs19togo. com). The website, www.charlottesvillenewsplex.tv, has essentially become a mini TV station, enabling viewers to catch the noon or 6pm newscast, for instance, from their desks. In addition, all the individual video feeds are archived and searchable. (And now that the reporters and anchors are getting to know the area—no more mentions of “Al-buh-marley”—many of the stories actually merit archiving.)

   Local media blogger Waldo Jaquith busts out the “C” word—convergence—to describe what the newsplex is up to. “Newspapers are discovering they can do more than the printed word. Inevitably, we see radio stations discovering they can do more than audio, and TV stations discovering they’re more than visual,” he says. “The text component is more compatible with how people gather news online.

   “What they’re doing is not effective now, but it’s giving them a good base for whatever comes down the pike in 2008 or whenever…What [the newsplex] has down is the portability of raw content. They have a system in place to get video on their website. They did it from the get-go. They will have a richer and more loyal audience for it—just not yet.”

   Staking out the new media ground is “invigorating,” says Settle, the news director. “From the news side, it’s the only way to survive,” he says. “The mentality that comes from the top is innovate, innovate, innovate. Five or 10 years from now, this will be the place to be. You have to get in on the ground floor now.”

   All of which costs plenty of scratch—even for a $261 million company like Gray (a cut in political advertising revenue cut Gray’s 2005 profits by 92 percent, to $3.4 million). Burchett and Prather acknowledge that Gray’s Charlottesville operation is not yet profitable, but Burchett says he’s ahead of schedule on his three-year plan. And that boundless optimism that Prather regards as central to Burchett’s management style simply won’t abate. He looks ahead to adding local kids programming, maybe a Saturday news magazine and… having a big party.

   “Gray Television owns this lock, stock and barrel, but the way Bob Prather runs this company, there is such autonomy that I feel it’s mine. I don’t mean that selfishly, I share that with everyone in this building. So when you have that autonomy, the record that is a result of your efforts is yours. It’s not their or ours, it’s yours,” Burchett says.

   “I have every confidence that at the five-year mark, we’re going to have a large party. To see what happens from a house trailer where we started to the five-year mark, I just can’t take my eye off that.”

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