KUWB-Ch. 30 isn't the first Utah television station Jamie Kellner tried to buy. But it is the first one he succeeded in acquiring.
In town this week to visit the station and drum up support for his fledgling network, the WB, the former president of the Fox network recalled his attempts to purchase KSTU-Ch. 13 back in the late '80s. As a matter of fact, Kellner and a partner were all set to buy the station when Fox chieftain Rupert Murdoch and then-Fox chairman Barry Diller lowered the boom."We could have bought it for $32 million at the time. And I was told by Mr. Murdoch and Mr. Diller that I couldn't buy the station," Kellner said. "And about six months later, they bought it for $35 million. I would have sold it to them for $35 million after I bought it for $32 million."
But now Kellner is his own boss. He not only runs the WB, but he's a partner in the network. (He owns 11 percent; the Tribune Co. - which also owns superstation WGN - owns 25 percent; and Time-Warner owns 64 percent.) And Kellner also controls ACME Television, which completed its purchase of KUWB just a couple of months ago.
"This time those guys couldn't tell me I couldn't buy this station," he said with a laugh.
Kellner sees his dual role as an asset to the local station.
"When you have the president of the network also owning the station group, if anything that's a benefit to the stations," he said. "When I make decisions, I try to be balanced in terms of what's best for the network and what's best for the stations.
"It would be very easy to make a decision that's just best for the network if I didn't have my station hat on half the day. I think it's the best thing that could happen for someone like me to be sitting there wearing both hats."
While Utah may not be among the largest television markets - it's 36th nationally - Kellner was obviously very interested in owning a station in Salt Lake City.
"It's very important," he said. "It's about putting us on the same footing with the other networks."
And that's been a bit of a struggle. Between its broadcast affiliates, the ACME stations and its cable operations (including WGN out of Chicago), the WB has inched its way up to covering 89 percent of the nation's TV-equipped households. But that's still 9 or 10 percent below ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.
"We have to pay the same amount of money that ABC does for programming," Kellner said. "So every time you have a market where they're getting eyeballs and we're not, we're at a disadvantage. Right now, it's the inefficiency of our distribution system that is causing us to still be losing money.
"It'll take us another four or five years, but we'll get to parity. We'll get to 96 percent, probably."
He pointed out that shows that were doing a 1 rating when Fox went on the air in 1989 were doing a 6 or 7 rating four years later. The difference was a better distribution system.
And local stations are the conduit to national ratings. ACME has acquired seven stations in the past 14 months and is planning on another seven to 10 stations in the next year-and-a-half.
Which is important because while networks have had a tough time making money - only NBC showed any significant profits this past season - network-owned stations have been highly profitable.
"That station becomes an important first stop for our viewers in the community," Kellner said. "That's what we have to do with KUWB - make people aware that it's there, that it's a quality station, that it looks great on the air, that it has good programming, that it's involved in the community. All the things that good stations do."
Kellner isn't exactly an absentee owner. He's owned a home at Deer Valley for the past seven or eight years, and he's enthusiastic about spending time there.
"From L.A., this is by far the best skiing," he said. "It's an hour and 20 minutes (by air). You take a 40-minute ride over the hill and you're at your place. . . . This is much better (than Aspen or Vail)."
THE "JERRY SPRINGER" STATION? Even the folks at Ch. 30 acknowledge that at this point - only nine weeks after signing on as KUWB - their major claim to fame (or infamy) is as the home of the outrageous "Jerry Springer Show." And, while Kellner won't back away from the program (which Ch. 30 airs twice a day, at noon and 10 p.m.), he isn't exactly bragging about it, either.
"When you start from scratch, you don't have the opportunity to decide from Day 1 all those shows you want to have on the air," he said. "You'll pretty much take what's available in the market and try to schedule it in an interesting, clever way."
And he doesn't think anybody should take "Jerry Springer" particularly seriously.
"When I was a kid, I loved to watch wrestling. . . . In many ways, when I watch `Jerry Spring-er' I kind of see the wrestling that I remember when I was a kid," Kellner said. "I don't mean the way they have people hitting each other or pushing each other - I think that's a mistake. To me it's a big circus. And I don't think anybody believes much of anything that's said or done on `Jerry Springer.'
"I don't think that, as Americans, it's us putting our best foot forward, however."
Kellner also foresees the day when KUWB will be able to secure the more desirable syndicated programming. If, as planned, he increases Acme's station group to 15-20, it will be able to work group deals.
"The more power you have in the marketplace the better off you are."