About 18 months ago in a local magazine article, I joked that WBBZ owner Phil Arno wasn’t really as crazy as one of the stars of the sitcoms the independent station runs – Corp. Klinger of “M*A*S*H” – even if local television industry executives wondered about his sanity.
He had grandiose plans to produce four or six programs a day after spending some of the $13 million he won in a lawsuit following a helicopter crash in Southern California on the $2.75 million purchase of WBBZ three years ago.
“Now I’m the only one who thinks I’m crazy,” cracked the 63-year-old Arno during an interview in his office near WBBZ’s Eastern Mall studio that continued my Rip Van Winkle tour of local TV stations.
Actually local TV executives still think he has a little of Klinger in him to think he can turn WBBZ into one of Buffalo’s top four stations. He admits now that he was a little too optimistic 18 months ago.
“It was very ambitious,” said Arno, who recently was given the Trailblazer Award at the Buffalo Excellence in Media Awards. “I think eventually we will … come up with interesting programs and will be able to support five or six programs a day. I think three hours of programming a day is not out of the question.”
A lot has happened in the last 18 months. The Buffalo native hired veteran TV executive Bob Koshinski as general manager and veteran Channel 7 executive John DiSciullo as promotion and production director. He has 15 other employees. The studio in the Eastern Hills Mall was completed in July 2012, and Arno wants to fill it with local programs.
“I come up with about 10 ideas a day and then I run them by Bob and Bob has to slap me around a bit and bring me back,” said Arno.
What idea of Arno’s did Koshinski reject? “Raise the Titanic,” cracked Arno.
Arno has become a little more realistic about the titanic undertaking he started three years ago.
“Certain things are harder,” he conceded. “Television is an expensive business. You have to have a reasonable amount of capital to invest in order to implement programs. We’re on a very tight budget so we’re introducing programs that we think can connect the best within our abilities.”
He isn’t a fan of local TV news or the corporate owners of local stations, which is why he believes a local owner with Buffalo ties will succeed long-term.
“For the most part [out-of-town owners] don’t care about Buffalo,” he said. “Buffalo deserves more than that … News to a great extent is filling air time. They do certain stories that are significant and important and then they throw in fender benders and abandoned buildings burning down that really isn’t news. Just because they have to fill that time. They don’t necessarily have to be interesting.”
Arno concedes that his ambition exceeded the station’s abilities last summer when he carried “Buffalo Night in America” from several remote locations around the country. The production values were more than a little amateurish.
“It was a training camp for us,” said DiSciullo. “We had a very ambitious event. We learned a lot … I’d like to think we grew from ‘Buffalo Night.’ ”
“It was an attempt do something nice for the area,” said Arno. “It was because of my impatience that we did it right out of the box. We did it basically while we were starting up. Criticism was valid but you never talked about the motivation behind it. The motivation was we wanted to do something nice for the area. And I couldn’t think of anything better than to do a national Buffalo Night. It was a passion of mine and I may do it again but I’m not going to do it until we can please the critics about production values.”
Arno still isn’t taking a salary, partly because WBBZ isn’t making a profit yet. “This will become the year of making money,” said Koshinski.
Instead of the four to six local programs a day that Arno envisioned, WBBZ carries about that many in a week. Its local programs include “Political Buzz”; a psychic show, “Secrets from Beyond”; “Sports Rap Up”; and “America’s Car Show” with Tom Torbjornsen. They all run at 7:30 p.m. on weekdays, except for “Sports Rap Up” at 6:30 p.m. You don’t have to be a psychic to know that “Beyond” is a popular show in which people pay $10 a head to be audience members.
The station also does well with sports programming. Arno said “The Fred Jackson Show” featuring the Buffalo Bills running back was “a huge success” last season and may be renewed. “We’re going to do a player’s show and we hope it is Fred,” said Koshinski.
The station’s top-rated programming is New York Yankees baseball, which also is the station’s biggest money-maker. WBBZ also had success simulcasting the Buffalo Bills NFL Network game with Miami and hopes to get this year’s NFL Network game with Cleveland if the price isn’t as high as it was a year ago.
Arno believes his ambitious plans have influenced what is on local TV. “The joke around here is every time I want to put a program on the air it ends up on the air but not on our air,” said Arno. “One of the other stations grabs it and runs with it. I like to think because of me there is more local programming on the air in Western New York; I come up the ideas and they get done.”
He had publicly noted that he was considering doing a wine show, a political talk show and a late-night show before Channel 2 started them all. Channel 2 might have been considering doing them as well, but Arno believes his ideas were the motivation.
He still hopes to eventually do a local version of “The Tonight Show,” but Koshinski isn’t in any hurry to do it after looking at Rob Lederman’s version on Channel 2, “Late Night in the Buff.”
“Rob has found out doing it once a week is tough, doing it five times a week would be very tough,” said Koshinski. “We’d have to have more resources to do it the way Phil sees doing it.”
Arno said he believes those times are coming. He doesn’t subscribe to Nielsen so he doesn’t get local ratings or demographics. He “has a feeling” that WBBZ is ahead of WNYO and WNLO in viewership over 24 hours a day, a feeling validated by a local researcher. He said the response from advertisers indicates that reruns of classic Me-TV shows “Perry Mason,” “Rifleman” and “M*A*S*H” do very well.
Down the road, Koshinski envisions WBBZ carrying a daily show in late afternoon or early evening. DiSciullo said it would be a hybrid of local information, talk and weather that sounds similar to a show he produced at Channel 7, “AM Buffalo.”
You’d have to be a psychic to know if WBBZ will ever become what Arno envisions, but it is easy to admire a Buffalo trailblazer who puts his money where his mouth is.