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TV Managers of the Year: WFAA, Dallas

Apr 13, 2008  •  Post A Comment

The winner of the TelevisionWeek TV Managers of the Year award for the Southwest region is the staff at Belo Corp.’s WFAA-TV in Dallas, the only locally owned station in the Dallas-Fort Worth market.
General Manager Mike Devlin did a stint as a reporter at the station early in his career and said he vowed to return; after a tour of duty elsewhere, he returned to the ABC affiliate as station manager before being promoted last fall to general manager.
Mr. Devlin said the 10 p.m. newscast delivers the station’s top numbers “over the last year or so. WFAA was struggling at that hour, but we’ve turned it around—and right behind that is the morning show.”
Unlike many journalists and broadcasters, Mr. Devlin sees great promise in the future of broadcasting. “If you read the newspapers, you think this is a terrible period” for broadcasting and journalism in general, he said. “But in any month, a sizable percentage of the population is watching some portion of their local news. When you add in the Internet, you have to figure a lot of people are watching the news somewhere.
“It might be online, might be on-air—we’re indifferent to how people get their news,” Mr. Devlin added. “Maybe I’m naive, but I’m extremely optimistic about the prospects and the future of local news—especially local news done well.”
WFAA covers 2.4 million homes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and is the fifth largest market in the country, serving a population of about 6.4 million.
“We have good competition in this area, four formidable stations,” Mr. Devlin said, “all of them doing some pretty good work. And we have a strong historical brand. I credit Michael [Valentine, executive news director] with that; it’s news consistency, enterprise and local reporting.”
“We do try to be consistent in our presentation,” Mr. Valentine said, “but we also try to be unpredictable in what we do, to make people think about what they’re seeing.”
In terms of drawing viewers, he added, “If anybody could put their finger on how to do that consistently, this job would be a lot easier.”
Mr. Devlin noted the station’s behind-the-scenes staff has made a huge difference in how the newsroom functions. “Our production engineers and technical people are proactive,” he said.
“They see something wrong and they fix it. They don’t wait to be told about it.
“We have stable and likable anchors who aren’t afraid to use humor when it’s applicable,” Mr. Devlin added, “and there’s an interesting chemistry on the anchor desk.”
“The greatest strength any news team can have,” Mr. Valentine noted, “is an inquisitive nature. Any good newsperson has that inquisitive streak. They’re constantly asking questions, challenging assumptions, looking deeper. They’re asking ‘Why are they doing that?’”
The Dallas-Fort Worth market differs from much of the country in terms of jobs and real estate, and Mr. Devlin knows that’s a plus for the area.
“We’ve got a lot of longtime residents and a lot of new arrivals,” he said. “We’re a business-oriented community and a growth community, which is good for jobs. It’s also slightly insulated from the housing crunch. We’ve seen housing prices drop slightly, but not like Arizona or California, and from a business standpoint it’s a pretty healthy market. This down-cycle is not as bad as it is in other places.”
Angela Betasso, WFAA’s vice president and director of sales, noted the Dallas market is “fast-growing and strong, relative to the rest of the country.” She said the strength of the newscasts is instrumental in allowing her to “take advantage of different nuances in the market.”
“We’re competing with other stations in our area on a big scale,” she said, “but we’re helping other businesses grow their own brand as we continue to push our brand across all platforms.”
Dallas is “a sophisticated city,” Mr. Devlin said, “but it still has the feel of Texas.” And doing business in Texas is important for the station. “The business side, the sales side in particular—if you don’t have a good sales department, you have to end up making cuts elsewhere.”
Mr. Devlin acknowledged another advantage WFAA has that other local stations lack: “We have our corporate owner right in our own market. They pushed us to go HD; [Belo Chairman] Robert Dechard pushed for and backed development of the new Victory Park [remote] studio. He recognized that these things can make a difference in resonating with viewers.”
Cross-Platform Focus
Mr. Devlin hopes to equip his field personnel with more HD cameras in the coming year, noting that HD has been a great boon for local broadcasters. “The Internet’s growing at a great percentage every year,” he said. “We want to push our staff toward thinking about utilizing the Internet and other platforms without forgetting our core operation.”
The station donated “about $5.5 million in air time” to public service announcements in 2007, he said, adding that the staff did “lots of outreach and events, with a high emphasis on localism.”
The station is working on a comedy show to showcase local talent and has a Sunday public affairs program for urban young people, along with televising the Dallas Marathon.
It’s one of only a handful of stations west of the Mississippi with call letters beginning with “W,” as sister station WFAA-AM had its call letters before the FCC policy went into effect.
WFAA broke the news that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, and was the first station to interview Abe Zapruder, who shot film of the assassination.

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