Pat LaPlatney never actually worked in a TV station, but he may be better qualified for his new job — running Raycom Media with its 62 TV stations in 42 markets — than those who have because of his years of experience in digital media and program development and syndication where much of broadcasting's future may lie.
This is not to suggest LaPlatney doesn't know TV stations. He's been around them his entire 35-year career, first as a sales rep and then as a syndicator of sports and traffic reports, a pioneering multicaster and a station group executive in charge of digital media.
The digital and programming experience helps as the business pivots that way, LaPlatney says. "But I am a TV guy. I have spent my whole career orbiting local TV."
LaPlatney, 57, succeeded Paul McTear as CEO of Raycom last month, and McTear says he was just the man to do it because of the digital background — and his ability to see beyond broadcasting.
"I will not say a negative thing about local TV," says McTear, who continues to serve Raycom as a member of its board and a consultant. "It is the engine that fuels the future of this business, but we needed somebody to add on and challenge the business unit leaders here to change their business.
"The days of serving up news at the specific hour in the living room or den are going to be over pretty soon," he says.
LaPlatney says he understands his mandate, but sees broadcasting, the web, mobile, OTT and other digital media as parts of a whole. "What Raycom needs to do with the company is aggregate the biggest video audience we can, gather as much data as we can about that audience and go out and sell it aggressively."
Upon graduating from Notre Dame in 1981, LaPlatney eschewed accounting jobs for which he had been educated and, instead, plunged into TV sales at Blair Television, the now-defunct rep firm.
That job taught him the fundamentals of broadcasting and selling and led him through four cities — Chicago, Miami, Charlotte and Atlanta — in the 1980s.
In 1989, he joined Raycom Sports, an independent syndicator of mostly college sports. (In 1996, it was absorbed into a station group that became Raycom Media.) "Back then, Raycom [Sports] had all kinds of different products, not just the Atlantic Coast Conference," LaPlatney says. "They had just gotten the Big 10. They had what was then the Big Eight, the Southwest Conference and then the Pac-8 — which ultimately became the Pac-12 — and the Metro Conference."
When he first joined Raycom, he expected he would be in syndication, clearing games on stations, but within a month of his arrival, the top account executive for the Southeast quit. "So I went right back into ad sales."
A couple of years into the job, he said, a senior management job in syndication opened up and he moved into it. He began selling to TV stations instead of for them as he did at Blair.
The job also introduced LaPlatney to the programming side of TV. Because Raycom Sports relied heavily on football and basketball, 95% of its revenue flowed in during the fourth and first quarters.
The challenge was to generate revenue in the second and third quarters. "Part of that effort was acquiring other programming for distribution or developing our own programming. We took a lot of stuff off HBO and there would be Sports Illustrated swimsuit shows. I can remember us doing a wonderful documentary on the journey of the African-American athlete."
In 1997, LaPlatney was lured away by Metro Networks, David Saperstein's thriving syndicated traffic reporting service in Houston. And when Metro Networks merged into Westwood One in 1998, LaPlatney stayed with the company, eventually moving back to Atlanta.
Shane Coppola, who was CEO of Westwood One at the time, credits LaPlatney with building up the TV side of the business. The company was based on radio and had only been "dabbling" in TV.
"It wasn't until we brought Pat on board ... that we were able to formulize a TV strategy and really leverage our [radio resources] from both a programming and sales standpoint.... He took [TV] to a whole new level; he professionalized it."
The key to his success was the rapport he had with the TV broadcasters, says Coppola, now CEO of American Skating Entertainment Centers. "He could deal with everybody at the TV station. He could speak their language."
Like McTear, Coppola thinks highly of LaPlatney as an executive, calling him a "straight-shooter" with a creative and entrepreneurial spirit. He was as comfortable making presentations to Wall Street investors and analysts as he was to a TV station GMs and creative services directors, he says.
Coppola resigned from Westwood One in 2005 and LaPlatney soon followed. LaPlatney figured on taking some time off to spend time with his wife and four boys. His resolve to focus on family did not last, however.
Six weeks into the hiatus, he was recruited by his old boss, Coppola, to head up a new company he was working with, The Tube, an early multicasting network.
Despite some powerful station groups as affiliates — Sinclair, Tribune and Raycom — the music video channel did not last long. It played its last video in October 2007.
"The company had what I would call a hairy capital structure and it was exceedingly difficult to raise any money," LaPlatney says. "So after six or eight months of working pro bono and trying to make something happen, I called one of our board members, a fellow named Paul McTear, and said, 'Paul, I think I am going to step back from this and try to get gainfully employed again.'"
Raycom was an early stage investor in The Tube, and, despite its troubles, McTear has been impressed by LaPlatney. "I got to see how he navigated some very difficult circumstances."
So, McTear invited LaPlatney to meet with him and then COO Wayne Daugherty at the NAB convention in April 2007. The meeting went well. By that August, LaPlatney was moving again — this time to Montgomery, Ala., to work again for Raycom as vice president of digital media.
McTear recalls that he tried to discourage LaPlatney from going the digital route, and to steer him into a conventional broadcast sales management role. But LaPlatney would not be detered.
LaPlatney had had some experience with digital media at Metro Networks and Westwood One and was eager to see what he could with the web at a TV station group, McTear says. "He really wanted to be involved in new media and what that represented on the advertising side and on the content side."
Planning for his retirement, McTear groomed LaPlatney to be his replacement, allowing him to hire his replacement as digital VP (that was Joe Fiveash) in 2013 and giving him a small portfolio of TV stations to manage so that he could complete his education on station operations. "For the past 18 months or so, I let Pat in on everything that I did."
LaPlatney says his role expanded after Daugherty retired as COO at the end of 2013. Among other things, he took over retransmission consent negotiations, he says. "Paul was great about giving more focused mentoring and it became pretty clear that we were going to make this transition."
Raycom fortunes are still heavily dependent on local broadcasting, but, on McTear's watch, it diversified into related businesses, including TV programming and digital.
The company has come a long way since 2006 when he rejoined it, says LaPlatney. "What was then just websites is now websites, mobile applications, mobile websites, OTT and pretty significant social presence."
According to LaPlatney, the digital business, which includes the stations' "organic" offerings as well as PureCars, a digital auto advertising platform that Raycom bought last year, now accounts for 12% or 13% of Raycom's revenue. "Not huge," he says. "It’s growing, though."
Raycom's programming business has several facets.
Raycom Sports doesn't syndicate nearly as many games to TV stations as it did in the 1990s when LaPlatney worked there, but it and two other programming arms — Tupelo-Honey Raycom and Webstream Sports — produce hundreds of sports, major and minor ones, for broadcasting and cable clients. Tupelo-Honey also produces reality shows for cable.
Raycom has formed a partnership with E.W. Scripps to develop new first-run programs that they will air and syndicate to other broadcasters. The venture has a half dozen shows in development. "We are not ready to announce anything yet, but hopefully we will have a couple of projects ready to go for '17."
Raycom also owns a piece of Bounce TV, the multicasting channel for African Americans. In fact, McTear says that LaPlatney was primarily responsible for making the connection with Jonathan Katz and the other founders of the network and following through on the deal.
"That showed me that not only could he handle the digital things as they were coming along, but he could also go out and show enterprise," says McTear.
The investment has been a winner and it has helped Raycom fulfill its desire to better serve its large African American audiences in the deep South, McTear says.
As LaPlatney prepped for the CEO job, one of his duties was to represent Raycom on the Pearl, the consortium of leading TV station groups that identifies new technologies that might help broadcasting and encourages their development.
During LaPlatney's chairmanship of the group, its major focus was ATSC 3.0, the new broadcast standard now pending approval by the FCC. Like other members of the group, LaPlatney sees good reasons for broadcasting to implement the standard.
LaPlatney particularly likes the idea that it will allow broadcasters to collect more granular data on who's watching and then use the data to target advertising. "The data and the targeting capabilities are probably what excites me the most, although I am not sure that everybody in the industry would share that idea."
McTear describes LaPlatney as a "fairly low-key" executives who tends to delegate more than he did.
LaPlatney says his management style is "very much a cliché. I am one of those who hires good people and lets them do their jobs. If you hire people who are smarter than you, then things generally work out."
That means a good deal of autonomy for the five Raycom VPs who run clusters of stations and their reports. "From my days in syndication and selling news services, you get a feel for how good stations are run and I think if you hire a strong GM and let them invest in their market you will have a good television station."
LaPlatney is happy with the organizational structure of the company, at least for now. "Over time, we will change it because the world we live in is going to demand those changes. Ideally we are going to get out in front of all the changes, but I think you won’t see anything significant in the next 18 months."
LaPlatney was born in Buffalo, but grew up in Miami and the west coast of Florida around St. Petersburg.
Now that three of his four boys are in college, LaPlatney says the demands of family are starting to abate.
For relaxation, LaPlatney turns to water. A competitive swimmer at Notre Dame, he regularly visits the YMCA for a swim in the morning or over his lunch break. He also retreats to a second home in Old Grayton Beach along the Florida panhandle, due south of Montgomery, Ala.
LaPlatney believes he is taking over at a good time for Raycom and broadcasting. "Yeah, the linear audience isn’t growing quickly, but there are a lot of other areas in video distribution that are.
"So I just think we have to embrace the newer platforms and find a way to bring all those together from a measurement perspective and, again, aggregate as much data as we can around our audience. If we do, I think it will sell."