Broadcast iBlast

KOLO sale closes this week

KOLO’s new management plans to get rolling with HDTV by next year.

KOLO’s new management plans to get rolling with HDTV by next year.

Photo By David Robert

When it was announced that KOLO Channel 8 had been sold to Smith Television back in October, there were some expectations that administrative and personnel changes could come down the pipe.

The sale will become final this week. The price was $45 million, according to Broadcasting & Cable, a trade publication. While fears of a house cleaning have been somewhat alleviated, there’s at least one big innovation in the works that nobody, including those in the KOLO newsroom, seems to be talking about.

It’s called iBlast, an offshoot of the new high-definition television technologies. iBlast Networks will use a portion of the digital spectrum to deliver free broadband Internet content over the airwaves. Consumers will need a $99 receiver card and antenna to pick up the iBlast signal.

Stations are required by law to have a high-definition signal online by May 31, 2002. KOLO’s new owner, Bob N. Smith, said the station would be iBlast-ready as early as next year.

“Our stations are part of the iBlast network,” said Smith, 57. “iBlast is a service that takes advantage of the excess capacity on the high-definition signal. We’ll be able to provide data transmission into a marketplace, so people will be able to get high-speed data transmission on their PCs. It will deliver such things as books, music, movies, games and programs. KOLO is expected to be part of that.”

Smith said iBlast would be 20 times faster than DSL or cable. That’s more than 120 times faster than a 56K modem.

Still, the staff at KOLO was more concerned about mundane matters, like whether they’ll keep their jobs.

“We have met the new guy,” said anchor Tad Dunbar. “He seems very nice and has considerable background in broadcasting. We’re all optimistic about it, but we’ll find out for sure after the takeover.”

Dunbar said his own skills aren’t technical, and he’s never heard of iBlast. It has been reported that Dunbar has a lifetime contract. KOLO management has said that contracts with employees will be honored.

Other KOLO staffers say that having chain ownership will likely have both positive and negative aspects.

One newsroom source said that since Smith has a track record of hands-off management, a much-needed and hoped for infusion of cash is unlikely. That probably puts a new newsroom computer system out of reach. Insiders say a new computer system is necessary to replace the antiquated one that crashed several months ago, losing six years of archived material.

Another inside source said the sale opened the possibility of advancement, where there had been none, since many of the on-air personalities were ensconced in their jobs with the old owners.

Floating among those uncertainties is a rumor that Smith Television stations share news information with Gannett media outlets. The Gannett corporation owns the Reno Gazette-Journal.

The new owner assuaged many of those concerns.

“We had a big company meeting where he took questions,” said one KOLO staff member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Nothing I heard in that meeting, and nothing that we’ve been able to learn about the corporation, suggests anybody will lose their jobs. But then, lots of businesses say all the right things coming in, but then they clean house.”

KOLO general manager Bill Hull said not to expect any personnel changes to The Team You Know and Trust.

“There really aren’t any kind of changes like that planned,” said Hull. “We’re always upgrading our on-air look, and it’s probably time for that. They’re buying a property that’s been run pretty well. It’s not a distressed sale or anything like that.”

KOLO often wins the ratings battle in the Truckee Meadows market.

Hull said that employees might indeed get some new opportunities for advancement. Since Smith owns several stations, employees may be able to move from station to station.

“Chain ownership will bring our people a lot of things,” he said. “Now we have an opportunity for people to move about within the company. Before, managers or supervisors really had no place to go, and I’d end up losing them to one of my competitors. Now, if they want to move to Santa Barbara, or if somebody from Santa Barbara wants to move here, we have opportunities like that. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to be part of a group, because there’s some movement within the ranks.”

The old owner, Stephens Group, only owned the one TV station, although they own several newspapers, including the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

But the biggest benefit of being part of a chain, Hull says, is the ability to share information with other stations. As the station makes the move to HDTV, Hull needs technical advice.

“Now we have other people we can talk to—other broadcasters who are faced with similar problems—especially in the conversion over to high-definition,” he said. “Each one of these new transmitters and antennas costs upwards of a couple million dollars. We’re researching everything we can, but it will certainly be nice to talk to some people who have already been through the conversion. So the technology affiliation is going to help us a lot.”

Hull, like many Americans, is anticipating the new television technology.

“I just received some of my first new monitors,” he said. “It’s quite remarkable how it looks. It looks like a magazine cover. There are no lines. It’s almost three-dimensional."Meet the new bossKOLO’s new owner has a history of involvement with social issues, like the civil rights and anti-war movements. Nowadays, Smith says, he uses his TV stations to promote the general welfare.

He first became involved with the television broadcast industry as an attorney in the Broadcast Bureau of the Federal Communications Commission from 1971 to 1974, according to the Sunrise Television Web site. Smith is president and CEO of Sunrise Television.

He was on the Carter administration’s White House staff in 1977, running the Office of Economic Opportunity, which was a program to help economically disadvantaged people. From 1977 to 1979, he was assistant director for the Commun-ity Services Administration.

Smith owns a part of 19 television stations—seven through the Smith Television Group and 12 through Sunrise Television. But those numbers change often, according to Smith.

Television has an obligation to contribute to society, he said. That service is one of two main goals for Smith’s stations.

“We believe that television stations are there to serve the community,” he said. “Their most important role is providing the community with news. We also have the view that TV is there to serve the community, and we usually take part in many public service and public interest events.

“The reason I love KOLO, and I mean I love the station, is because those are the two things they are particularly known for: one, their high quality of news service; and two, giving back to the community. That station is very much an example of what I think is important, and operates very much as I think stations should operate.”

But other aspects of those operations may change to some extent with iBlast. Smith Broadcasting is one of 12 founding partners of the new network, which started last year. The others are Tribune Company, Gannett, Cox, Post-Newsweek Stations, The E.W. Scripps Company, Meredith Corporation, Media General, Lee Enterprises, The New York Times Company, McGraw Hill and Northwest.

iBlast is probably where the rumor started about news sharing between Gannett newspapers and Smith Broadcasting stations. Reno stations KAME and KRXI are owned by Cox Broadcasting, another founder of iBlast, and will likely also offer the service when it becomes available.

Smith is more than excited about iBlast’s potential.

“There are five stations in the country testing this right now," he said. "We’re hoping to get it into some commercialization before the end of the year. In our marketplace, I know that KOLO is probably going to become high-definition operational by next year. Hopefully, we won’t be far behind in offering that service to the community."