While much of Memphis, Tennessee, was shut in during the mid-February snowstorm, the news crews were out and about, covering this once-in-a-generation event.
“We knew it was going to be bad,” said Jonathan Mitchell, VP and general manager of WMC. Putting 12 crews in hotel rooms “was not a cheap venture, but it was the right thing to do. We were kind of everywhere.”
Six to 10 inches fell across the market. Long-range freezing temperatures kept Memphis in lockdown and the city’s water supply was impaired.
“This part of the country is not accustomed to that,” Ron Walter, WREG VP/general manager, said. “It was crippling and dangerous and beautiful all at once.”
Nexstar Media Group owns CBS affiliate WREG. Gray Television holds NBC outlet WMC. Apollo Global Management has Fox station WHBQ and Tegna owns ABC affiliate WATN and The CW-aligned WLMT.
Comcast is the dominant pay TV operator in DMA No. 51.
Walter has spent a stunning 34 years at WREG. It is a local news powerhouse, facing stiff competition from WMC and WHBQ, with WATN playing catch-up. “As people search for a trusted source of news in their community, more people have turned to us than before,” said Rick Rogala, WATN-WLMT president/general manager.
WREG had the top household Nielsen score at 6 a.m. in January, and WHBQ was tops in 25-54. WREG won a tight 5 p.m. households race and 25-54, and won 6 p.m. households, tying with WMC in 25-54.
At 10 p.m., WREG had an 8.3 household rating and 2.9 in the demo. WHBQ did a 4.1 and a 1.8, WMC a 4.1 and 1.5 and WATN a 1.2 and 0.5.
The stations are hustling to get ahead. WREG unveiled a new set in October, which Walter said is “modern, digital and like a network’s.” Next up is the newsroom.
Mitchell arrived at WMC in September 2017 after a stint as VP of news at KNTV San Francisco. The station has gone from 33 hours of news a week to 47 during his time in the market.
Rogala arrived late in 2019. WATN produced a digital town hall on race called “Uncomfortable Conversations.” “It was ground-breaking,” said Rogala. “We asked, what are the possible solutions to these questions?”
Another one on vaccines was called “Candid Conversations.” Both ran on-air.
Stations Change Owners
Memphis has seen substantial ownership changes among its stations. Apollo acquired the Cox Media Group stations, including WHBQ, late in 2019. Late in 2018, Nexstar grabbed WREG and had to sell WATN-WLMT in 2019, with Tegna acquiring. In 2018, Gray and Raycom merged, giving WMC a new owner.
The stations are looking forward to life after pandemic. WREG’s Saturday show Informed Sources became The Coronavirus Alert Health Check last year. “We modified it to reflect what is going on in the community,” said Walter, “and sometimes in the nation.”
WMC aired school lessons on a subchannel for students stuck at home last year. When students in need got laptops and internet access, and did not need televised lessons, the station raised $350,000 for headsets.
WMC’s 3 p.m. show Bluff City Life is on hiatus, with news filling in. “Fingers crossed, we hope to come back in the fall,” said Mitchell.
WATN-WLMT has partnered with Heal the Hood Foundation of Memphis to build the Hero Empowerment Center in the city.
Memphis is diverse, with a rich history, and lots of nightlife on Beale Street and beyond. Said Mitchell, “It’s one of those cities that really has a soul.”
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