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Big News in the Backyard

When a ComAir commuter jet crashed shortly after takeoff from Kentucky's Blue Grass Airport last month, killing 49 people, Lexington broadcasters mobilized to cover the story. The crash and the ensuing investigation have been the central focus of local-news operations, intensifying a tight race for news viewers in Nielsen's No. 63 market.

Following the crash, Cordillera Communications’ NBC affiliate WLEX broadcast commercial-free and streamed its coverage online. Both WLEX and Gray Television’s CBS affiliate WKYT dispatched helicopters; Media General’s ABC affiliate WTVQ relied on ABC sister station WHAS Louisville for aerial shots.

The crash prompted WTVQ to launch its planned 5:30 p.m. newscast a week ahead of schedule. “We had plenty of news to support the move,” says General Manager Mark Pimentel.

WKYT, meanwhile, has provided coverage both on its 11 p.m. news and a 10 p.m. broadcast it produces for Sinclair Broadcasting’s Fox affiliate WDKY.

WLEX itself became part of the coverage, thanks to an ill-timed sketch that opened its network’s broadcast of the Primetime Emmy Awards on the night of the crash. While most of the country’s NBC affiliates aired a red-carpet show, WLEX’s news summary on the crash led right into the awards show’s opening segment: a plane crash sequence spoofing ABC’s hit castaway drama Lost.

The next day, WLEX General Manager Tim Gilbert blasted the network for not giving his station advance warning of the taped sketch. “The recap ended at 7:59. There was no separation in this market,” he says. “It made it very uncomfortable for our viewers.”

With the investigation ongoing, Gilbert says, the crash remains “an element of every newscast in town” and continues to energize an already competitive news scene.

WLEX has been No. 1 in news at 6 and 11 p.m since overtaking longtime news leader WKYT two years ago. But WKYT still wins 5 p.m, with The Oprah Winfrey Show as a lead-in and is a close second at 6 p.m.

The station’s 11 p.m. news and its 10 p.m. broadcast for WDKY attract similar-size audiences, each scoring 6 ratings in last May’s sweeps. WKYT General Manager Wayne Martin doesn’t subscribe to the conventional wisdom that a highly rated 10 p.m news can cannibalize a station’s main 11 p.m. broadcast.

“These shows have different audiences,” he says. “We are giving viewers choice, and that is good for the market.”

In addition to launching its 5:30 p.m. newscast, third-placed WTVQ recently moved up its morning start time to 5.

In entertainment programming, WKYT is airing The CW network on one of its secondary digital stations and has carriage on cable and satellite service DirecTV. Low-power station WBLU, owned by Equity Broadcasting, is home to Fox’s new MyNetworkTV.

Local broadcasters operate in a healthy market steadied by a Toyota automotive plant, the state capitol in nearby Frankfurt and the University of Kentucky. Lexington is also the center of the state’s horse industry, which draws upscale residents and visitors. Stations took in $67.6 million in gross revenues last year, up from $62.8 million in 2003, the latest comparable non-election year.

“This isn’t a boom market like Austin [Texas] or Ft. Myers [Fla.],” says WTVQ’s Pimentel. “But we are rolling along and growing.”

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