Arch Rivals

NBC’s prime time ratings woes could have a profound impact on November sweeps in St. Louis. NBC affiliate KSDK, long the dominant station in the country’s 21st-largest TV market, is fighting to hold onto its advantage, with fierce competition from CBS affiliate KMOV and Fox station KTVI.

KMOV, a perpetually strong runner-up in late news, actually won at 10 p.m. last November, and CBS’ robust prime time is leading more viewers to its news. KTVI’s 9 p.m. news is surging, with ratings up 24% last May, compared with the year before.

“KSDK has the toughest challenge,” says local media buyer Bruce Kupper, CEO of Kupper Parker. “You used to have Friends, and now you have Joey.”

Nonetheless, KSDK has its resources. In most recent ratings books, it has been No. 1 in early-morning, early-evening and late newscasts, and the station added an investigative team not long ago. Surrounding the evening news are marquee syndicated shows, such as The Oprah Winfrey Show and Wheel of Fortune. Those assets, says station President/General Manager Lynn Beall, “will hopefully keep viewers choosing our product, no matter what happens in prime.”

For a top-25 market, St. Louis features an unusual competitive landscape. The NBC and CBS stations are both among the top network affiliates in the country, but Sinclair-owned ABC station KDNL is weak and does not even broadcast local news. Whereas many markets have independents or Spanish-language broadcasters, St. Louis has only the six major network affiliates. Just four do late news: KMOV and KSDK offer 10 p.m. news, and KTVI and WB affiliate KPLR broadcasts at 9 p.m. KDNL dropped news in 2001.

Broadcasters took in $233.9 million in 2004, up from $215.7 million the year before. Last year, $38 million in political revenue poured into the market. This year, however, the advertising market is soft, with key categories, such as automotive and retail, down.

To nurture new dollars, stations push local fare. KSDK offers NBC’s 24/7 digital weather service Weather Plus and delivers news and weather to cellphones. KPRL is the local-rights holder for the front-running St. Louis Cardinals and NHL’s St. Louis Blues. KMOV works with advertisers on local programming (see sidebar).

With sweeps approaching, all stations have their eyes on the local-news battle. “Stations here put a tremendous emphasis on news,” says KMOV President/General Manager Allan Cohen, who has run the station for 25 years. “It is a heavyweight battle, and the residents benefit.”

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