Ex-Sinclair chief now No. 2 at USA Nets

Former Sinclair Broadcasting chief Barry Baker has been named president and chief operating officer of USA Networks Inc., ending a week of speculation about his future.

Baker, who resigned from Sinclair a little more than a week ago (Daily Variety, Feb. 10), will preside as Barry Diller’s second-in-command, overseeing all of USA Networks’ operating divisions.

With Diller at the helm, USA Networks has aggressively accumulated companies in television and new media, including USA Network and the Sci-Fi Channel; Studios USA, which produces and distributes firstrun fare; USA Broadcasting, a group of television stations and a fledgling seventh network; Home Shopping Network, Ticketmaster and a controlling interest in Ticketmaster Online-CitySearch.

Already a power

At the Baltimore, Md.-based Sinclair, which controls 64 television and 54 radio stations, Baker was CEO of one of the most powerful broadcast groups in the country. He will relocate to New York for USA Networks.

Baker said he moved to USA Networks because he’s enamored with Diller’s “vision of the converging media world,” and USA’s interesting array of communications assets. Baker said that he’s remained in touch with Diller since the first days of the Fox Broadcasting Co. (when Baker was a Fox affiliate owner and Diller led the upstart network), and Baker has closely followed Diller’s Web site and e-commerce businesses.

“We’ve been talking about (working together) for years,” Baker said. “He tried to get me three years ago, but it wasn’t the right time.”

Distinct from Diller

As Diller’s No. 2, Baker said that his role will be to manage day-to-day operations at USA’s various divisions as Diller continues his torrid deal-making pace.

“It’s my job to make these divisions talk to each other while Barry flies around the world building the company,” Baker said. “There are some obvious synergies they haven’t focused on yet.”

Baker said that one of USA Networks’ main challenges is to leverage the millions of people who watch USA’s cable networks and broadcast stations into its Web sites for e-commerce.

But before Diller’s company can reap the rewards of converging Home Shopping Network with e-commerce, Ticketmaster Online with HSN and the Sci-Fi Channel with the Internet, USA Networks needs to first enact more elementary kinds of synergy.

Marrying cable & b’cast

For example, Diller has been talking for some time about running programming from cable networks on his broadcast stations, but it has yet to happen.

“We really want to create programming that can be used in both arenas,” Baker said. “Everyone believes that we’ll evolve into a broadcast/cable model.”

Studios USA has raised some eyebrows lately for asking NBC to share a new show with USA Network cabler, an idea that has NBC affiliates in a tizzy.

“Stations have to face the reality of the economics of the broadcast-only business,” he now says. “Whether it’s multiplexing on digital channels or broadcast-cable hybrids, it can’t be dismissed.”

Birds of a feather

In many ways, Baker and Diller have similar professional demeanors. Both are hard-nosed and outspoken, and Diller relishes his reputation as one of the toughest bosses in the entertainment biz.

Baker is considered a fierce, scrappy and colorful executive with a take-no-prisoners attitude. He’s well-known for leveraging the clout Sinclair had for controlling multiple stations in a market to cut incredible deals with syndicators.

When UPN in December 1997 sued Sinclair for affiliate defections to the WB, Baker countersued, ordered his stations to stop doing any business with Paramount Domestic TV, and he yanked his remaining UPN affiliates until the situation was resolved.

“It’s not going to be Paramount exacting a settlement from us,” he told Daily Variety at the time. “It’s going to be the other way around.” When the UPN suit was defeated, Baker boasted, “In spite of them saying we were stupid and had misread the contracts, they needed to do a little reading themselves.”

The early years

Baker began his broadcasting career in 1975 as marketing director for Upstate Cablevision, after which he served in management positions in cable and radio in Syracuse, N.Y.

He then managed radio startups in Houston and St. Louis. In 1983, he became general manager of KPLR-TV in St. Louis and was promoted to a group executive’s position with the station’s parent company.

In late 1989, Baker founded River City Broadcasting with $5.5 million of seed money from investors. Six years later he engineered the sale of River City’s assets to Sinclair for $1.2 billion.

Baker will certainly be expected to increase the value of Diller’s stations, but he said USA Broadcasting will not likely go on a station buying spree unless there are other advantages to such a move.

“I’m a big supporter of growing the stations we have,” Baker said. “Any other opportunities for buying we’ll take not just if the eyeballs help the stations, but the e-commerce business too.”

The same goes for buying or partnering with a broadcast network. The company will not dismiss such an idea, but Baker said he’s looking at numerous ways to bolster distribution.

Still, if Diller were looking for someone with experience buying and selling stations, “Baker would be the guy,” one industry exec said.

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