Running two television stations in the nation’s fifth-largest market during a prolonged economic downturn is hardly for the faint of heart.

But Steve Mauldin, president and general manager of KTVT-TV (CBS 11) and KTXA-TV (TXA 21), already has an advanced degree in adversity. He never knew his absentee father; has a daughter with autism, now 19; and he’s a six-year survivor of often fatal Stage 4 tongue cancer.

“When you have those kinds of experiences, they fill a gap in your life,” Mauldin, 60, says during an expansive interview in the stations’ Fort Worth offices. “They sensitize you to things you didn’t feel before. So I’m like everybody else. I’m a combination of all those bumps and bruises and whipped cream and cherries and all the other good stuff.”

Not that he’s running a sundae school. The Odessa native and Baylor University graduate returned to his home state in 2003 with a reputation as a hard-driving, strong-willed ratings repairman. He arrived from Miami’s WFOR-TV, where “under Steve’s guidance, the WFOR late news went from fifth to first place in the market in just two years.”

That’s a passage from Mauldin’s official biography on the CBS 11/TXA 21 web site. Told that it portrays him as a miracle worker, he laughs and rejoins, “Well, but I wrote that. So you know that it had a lot of fluff in it.”

The big prize in Dallas-Fort Worth’s local newscast wars is still at 10 p.m., where the CBS-owned station remains on the cusp despite a long-held “lead-in” advantage from 9 p.m. network programming. In the last major ratings period, the four-week May “sweeps,” CBS 11 lost out to front-running WFAA-TV (Channel 8) by just three-tenths of a rating point (19,929 viewers), according to Nielsen Media Research.

That’s the closest Mauldin’s station has ever been to No. 1. But the sliver in that lining is this: CBS 11 had a sizable advantage from 9:45 to 10 p.m., when it inherited an average of 86,000 more viewers from network programming than WFAA did from ABC shows. Mauldin, a former Baylor baseball catcher and avid golfer, is fond of using sports metaphors to make points. In that context, CBS 11’s 10 p.m. performance, although slowly improving, is the equivalent of blowing a big lead in the ninth inning.

“Have I been as successful as you think I should have been? You’d have to be on the inside to get a better sense of that,” Mauldin says. “We have made more money every year I’ve been here until we faced the economic issue. But we still do better than most. … Being a critic, as you know, is not that tough a job. Walking the walk is the tougher part.”

The last two years in particular have been “the most difficult I’ve ever seen,” Mauldin says of a recession that has spurred downsizing at CBS 11/TXA 21, WFAA, and the market’s other two major television news providers, KDFW-TV (Fox 4) and KXAS-TV (NBC 5). A rival local television executive says the broadcast TV business “isn’t dying; it’s on pause.”

Still, Mauldin continues to make deals while others lately have pulled back.

“I’ve always figured out how to make money with it,” he says of locally produced programming, the lifeblood of any self-respecting, thriving station in his view.
Though both stations he runs are owned by CBS, “we are not micromanaged,” Mauldin insists. “I’ve got great autonomy. Every market is different, and I appreciate that the people I work for know that. We have a lot of momentum in Dallas. The last thing in the world you want to do is stop that.”

Mauldin launched TXA 21’s nightly two-hour “First In Prime” newscast in 2006, and emphatically says it will not be cut back to one hour despite faltering ratings. He also plans to expand CBS 11’s 4 p.m. news to a full hour, and has a localized version of The View in development that might be hosted by Deion Sanders’ wife, Pilar.

On the sports front, TXA 21 recently inked a five-year deal with the Texas Rangers that will bring a weekly Friday night “Game of the Week” to the station next season.

“It’s one of the most exciting things I ever did,” Mauldin says of playing ball with the resurgent Rangers. “You don’t hear much about TV rights coming back to broadcast TV instead of going to cable. That was big to me. Over-the-air TV is far from dead. I’m not afraid of the future with it. I believe we can all morph and change and still be here.”

He is, of course, happy to be anywhere.

Mauldin had barely settled in at CBS 11 and TXA 21 when a tumor on the back of his tongue was diagnosed as “Stage 4 cancer and life-threatening.”

He was 54 at the time, and found a doctor in Little Rock who determined that the cancer had been caused by acid reflux. After aggressive treatment, “It’s gone, it’s cured,” Mauldin says. “I have great energy, and my health has come back dramatically. There’s no doubt that I feel like a stronger, better person, a more sensitive person because of what I went through.”

Mauldin is mostly soft-spoken during our interview, but “I think it’s true that he inspires strong likes and dislikes and that many of his employees fear him,” says former CBS 11 anchor Tracy Rowlett, who nonetheless gives his old boss an overall thumbs-up.

Among five prominent, recent CBS 11 news staffers contacted, only Rowlett would speak on the record about Mauldin.

“In my experiences with him, I spoke candidly and found him to be receptive to what I had to say,” Rowlett says. “Steve doesn’t lack confidence. I think he would tell you that TV is a business, and that news content should include specific stories for the key demographic—women 25 to 54 years old.

“While we might disagree on newscast content and presentation, I have always liked him. And as with everyone, I always knew who set station policy. Every employee and department head is well aware of who manages CBS 11.”

Shuffling The Deck

Mauldin describes himself as a “player-coach who likes to be in the trenches” and loathes “letting people go” for economic reasons. He will, however, shuffle the on-air deck, as will any vigilant station boss. At CBS 11, he recruited meteorologist Larry Mowry from an Orlando, Fla., station while at the same time easing veteran Kristine Kahanek out of the picture. She’s now writing children’s books.

“Our frontline people are the portal,” he says. “And if you don’t have people that are warm and engaging, that’s a turnoff. This television station has a lot of warm people.”   

Is he among them?

“I don’t try to be intimidating,” Mauldin interjects. “People who are in a leadership role and are aggressive sometimes have to make tough decisions. And not everybody understands those decisions or agrees with them.”

Hardly anyone—including Mauldin himself in the end—agreed with his 2007 hiring of Regent Ducas as CBS 11’s news director. Ducas arrived from Kansas City and quickly implanted what he called a more topical, “run and gun” approach to newscasts. Station morale plummeted, ratings dipped, and Mauldin quickly pulled the plug, dropping Ducas after just five months and naming assistant news director Scott Diener to replace him.

“No one’s perfect,” Mauldin says of Ducas, who now works for Irving-based Talent Dynamics. “Regent was a dynamic personality. The energy came with him, but our ability to connect about certain standards did not. Did we miss a step? I think every time you have change, you miss a step. But we’ve certainly picked up the step we lost.”

The giant step has yet to be taken, though. CBS 11 has made gains in the early-morning local news competition, and for the first time is at least within striking distance of a third-place finish in a four-way race. The early-evening newscast battles are tighter, but CBS11 still ran fourth across the board in the May sweeps.

That leaves the 10 p.m. trophy still very much in play, with Mauldin again hunting for that elusive big game as the November “sweeps” signal the first full-blown test of the new TV season.

“No, I’m not! I’m not obsessed with it,” he says of finally climbing the 10 p.m. mountain. “I am excited about it, and working towards it. But I’m not spilling coffee on my shirt every morning with my hands shaking, thinking, ‘Oh God, we’re not there yet.’ ”

All in good time, though. Mauldin says you can take that to the bank because “I’m not just showin’ up here. I’m showin’ up with a mission.
“So yeah, we’ll be No. 1 here. You bet,” he vows. “Absolutely. There’s not a doubt in my mind.”

Ed Bark, former longstanding TV critic for The Dallas Morning News, is now prop­­­rietor of the web site unclebarky.com, which was launched in September 2006. He has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is a past president of the national Television Critics Association.