SEATTLE — Barry Ackerley, who once owned several upstate New York television stations including ABC affiliates WIXT in Syracuse and WUTR in Utica, has died. News reports from Ackerley’s long-time home base of Seattle say Ackerley died after suffering a stroke yesterday morning in California at the age of 76.
WIXT was the first television station Ackerley purchased, after building his foundation in the outdoor advertising business. According to encyclopedia.com, Ackerley bought the station for $13.8 Million in 1982. Under his ownership, channel 9’s present-day home on Bridge Street in East Syracuse was built, allowing the station to move out of the ShoppingTown Mall studios it had occupied since it signed on as WNYS-TV in 1962.
Over the years, particularly in the 1990s, The Ackerley Group bought the ABC affiliates in every market surrounding Syracuse: WOKR/Rochester to the west, WUTR/Utica to the east, WWTI/Watertown up north, and WIVT/Binghamton to the south. The company also acquired NBC affiliates WETM/Elmira and WBGH-CA/Binghamton.
These purchases paved the way for Ackerley to make headlines in national broadcasting trades, when the company launched “Digital Central Casting,” a hub-and-spoke fiber-optic network in which one hub station would provide master control and other functions to the spoke stations. A few of these hubs existed across the country, with Syracuse serving as the hub for the “Central New York Station Group” properties mentioned above.
Under Ackerley’s ownership, WUTR and WIVT started using the same news music and graphics as WIXT, and both stations even had their news sets renovated to look more like their big sister in Syracuse. Certain features from Syracuse — like Consumer Reports, Rick’s Recipes and the Family Healthcast — were fed out to the sister stations on a daily basis. Since all the stations were connected by fiber, there was no longer any need to spend money on satellite windows or courier services to deliver video between sister stations.
Although the television operation was impressive, The Ackerley Group’s biggest assets were always outdoor advertising and radio. Those two factors were what attracted Clear Channel to buy the entire company in 2002.
In order to meet FCC market ownership limits, Clear Channel was forced to divest either WUTR or four of the nine Utica-Rome radio stations it owned at the time. The company opted to sell off WUTR, axing the newsroom first to make the books more attractive to potential buyers. (Mission Broadcasting eventually bought the station.) Although some CNYRadio.com reports from the time said Clear Channel would also have to divest one Syracuse station, that ultimately wasn’t required.
Two owners later — Clear Channel until 2008, Newport Television since then — some of Ackerley’s innovations remain in place today. Aside from WUTR, “the hub” remains intact, with Syracuse running master control for the six primary stations and a handful of digital subchannels which have sprouted in recent years.
Local media in Ackerley’s home base of Seattle appears to remember Barry Ackerley mostly for his ownership of the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics, which lasted from 1983 to 2001. The SuperSonics entry on Wikipedia says Ackerley presided over “a period of decline and mediocrity for the franchise.” During Ackerley’s ownership, the team reached the NBA Finals only once, losing to the Chicago Bulls at the end of the 1996-96 season.
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