As the two Senate races in Georgia will decide which party will rule the chamber in Washington, the spending is positively pouring in at stations in the state. It started in Savannah the day after Election Day, according to one general manager, and will continue until the runoff elections Jan. 5.
“This is unbelievable,” Benjamin Hart, WJCL president and general manager, said. “Money is pouring into this state in ungodly amounts.”
The four candidates and assorted PACs will spend more than $100 million across the state in the two months leading up to the runoffs, according to Kantar/CMAG. Larry Silbermann, VP and general manager of WTOC, said the spending across those two months will amount to more than the station gets in a typical election year. “We’re certainly the eye of the storm right now,” he said.
Gray Television’s WTOC, a CBS affiliate, is the market leader. Nexstar has NBC outlet WSAV, which runs The CW and MyNetworkTV on its subchannels. Hearst Television owns ABC affiliate WJCL. Sinclair holds Fox affiliate WTGS.
Comcast is the dominant pay TV operator in DMA No. 89.
WTOC, which does not subscribe to Nielsen, has ruled Savannah news for decades. It features anchor stability, more local news than the competitors and what Silbermann calls “a special connection” to the community. “We continually work at trying to be better,” he said. “We appreciate the legacy status but we don’t take it for granted. We don’t get complacent.”
WTOC dominated household ratings in November, per Comscore, winning the
6-7 a.m. and 5 and 6 p.m. news races handily, and posting a 6.0 rating at 11 p.m., ahead of WSAV’s 3.3 and WJCL’s 1.6.
With “On Your Side” branding, WSAV also offers viewers considerable anchor tenure. Station talent can often be found out and about in Savannah, not only covering news but turning up at community events. “Our anchors connect with the market in ways well beyond on air,” said Marc Hefner, VP and general manager.
WJCL had been an also-ran in Savannah, but the station has been picking up ground. Hart, a former news director at WISN Milwaukee, was named WJCL general manager in September. WJCL tenaciously covers politics, and offers a level of newsroom professionalism that most stations cannot muster, Hart said. WJCL is an active participant in Hearst TV’s bridge-building Project CommUNITY initiative. “We are trying to find the things that divide us, and the things that are holding us together,” said Hart.
Cory Culleton, WTGS VP and general manager, splits his time between Savannah and Sinclair’s stations in Gainesville, Florida. WTGS offers 10 p.m. nightly news.
The news battle has heated up in Savannah, and that’s how Silbermann — like Hart, he’s a former news director — likes it. “I’m all for a competitive market,” he said. “For journalism to thrive, there needs to be a competitiveness among the stations. It’s healthy.”
Nestled on the Georgia-South Carolina border, on the Atlantic Ocean, the Savannah market includes a chunk of South Carolina, including Hilton Head. Tourism is a giant economic driver in the picturesque Coastal Empire. “When you go through downtown Savannah, there’s nothing like it on earth,” Hefner said.
Every tourist destination is going through a tough time in the pandemic, Savannah included. Its enormous St. Patrick’s Day parade may not happen, but Savannah is also a lively port city, and features a strong military presence. That balanced portfolio smoothes out many of the economic potholes.
Savannah oozes charm and character. Hart likens its architectural beauty to New Orleans, where he was a producer at WDSU, but said the measured pace of Savannah is better suited to take it all in. “It’s the most uniquely beautiful city I’ve been to,” he said.
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