Jim Duffy: Broadcasters can rebuild broadcasting


RBR-TVBR Exclusive

Retired ABC Television President Jim Duffy doesn’t care much for what deregulation has done to radio and television in recent decades. But he still has hope and sees a solution – put broadcasters back in charge of running broadcasting companies.

“It’s going to take a lot of caring and creative ideas,” Duffy said as he addressed the Broadcasters Club on Friday (2/12) in Sarasota, FL. But, in the end, he said returning radio and television to glory days will be done by broadcasters, not by corporations focused only on the bottom line.

When it comes to building up a broadcasting company, Duffy speaks from experience. He joined ABC in 1949, when it was “a ship that was listing badly.” But he stayed on for 46 years and watched the struggling network grow and become successful – himself playing no small role in that metamorphosis.

“Those first three years were tough,” Duffy recalled. Leonard Goldenson had bought ABC from Ed Noble, who a few years earlier had cristened the former NBC “Blue” network the American Broadcasting Company after NBC was forced by the government to divest one of its two networks. Of course, it kept the stronger one.

“Leonard was really a visionary,” Duffy said, and used his Hollywood connections to end the boycott of television by the movie studios, first with Warner Bros. producing western series for ABC. And he also convinced Walt Disney to do a “Walt Disney Presents” show on Sunday nights for ABC. Roone Arledge came onboard with idea of originating the “Wide World of Sports.” The struggling distant #3 network gradually stopped being the butt of industry jokes and became a serious competitor.

Meanwhile, the weak TV operation that Goldenson had acquired actually came with a pretty good radio network, anchored by 50kw AM O&Os in five major markets. You may be surprised to learn that Duffy, despite his long TV career, recalls his three years as Director of Sales for ABC Radio (1960-63) as “the happiest days of my career.” The corporate bosses were so focused on television that the radio folks had a lot of freedom to create new shows, he recalled. ABC Radio tripled sales in those three years – which put it finally, but barely, into the black.

But when Goldenson asked, Duffy moved back to the TV side to head up sales. By then ABC Television had 149 stations, up from the five O&Os and nine primary affiliates of the late ’40s. But even so, CBS and NBC each had over 200, so a big part of Duffy’s job was to achieve parity, particularly once he became President of ABC Television in 1970. “Those were the glory days,” he recalled, as the network rolled out innovative programming targeting young demos and worked to upgrade its affiliate lineup. He cites that improvement in the affiliate group for ABC as his greatest personal achievement in the job, because “it changed the whole dynamic of the medium.”

Today, though, Duffy says he has great concerns about where the structure of the network-affiliate relationship may be going. “I’m a great proponent of localism,” he noted.

The veteran broadcaster is no fan of the deregulation that began in the 1980s and attracted big corporations to the business, putting all of the networks into play. But while he says you can’t put the genie back in the bottle, what may emerge could be a different structure that could also work. Just let the broadcasters get back to running broadcasting.

Beyond that, though, what Duffy told the Sarasota crowd that broadcasting needs most “is a total redoing of the ratings system so that it makes more sense.” He is certainly not the first broadcaster to make that statement, nor is he likely to be the last.

RBR-TVBR observation: In case you haven’t noticed, big media companies are frequent punching bags for politicians in Washington, but Duffy noted that he got a completely different reception in his final years at ABC. Relinquishing his network presidency when Capital Cities bought the company in 1985, Duffy headed communications for the merged company and joined the US Vice President’s wife, Barbara Bush, later First Lady, in launching “Project Literacy.” That, Duffy said, was the most gratifying part of his broadcasting career. Perhaps more efforts like that would give the broadcasting industry a better reputation inside the Beltway.