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On the Brink

Stations in Philadelphia are entering a fall season that could tip the balance in the country’s fourth-largest TV market. If NBC reclaims its past primetime glory, the company’s WCAU could get a boost in its pursuit of ABC-owned late-news leader WPVI. Likewise, new CBS News anchor Katie Couric could drive ratings for CBS-owned KYW’s early-evening news block. But broadcasters are hardly waiting for their networks to save the day.

The race to catch WPVI in late news is particularly tight: Less than a rating point separated the four late-news stations in the adult 25-54 demographic in May. “This has become a very close ballgame,” says KYW/WPSG General Manager Michael Colleran.

WCAU has closed in on WPVI’s 11 p.m. newscast with investigative series on local high schools and the city’s high murder rate. “These are not just one-offs,” says News Director Chris Blackman. “We have elements of these investigations almost every day.”

The station is extending its brand with a 10 p.m. news launched last December on Tribune Broadcasting’s WPHL, the future MyNetworkTV affiliate. And its local morning show 10! provided a model for iVillage Live, NBC Universal’s new morning show slated to run on NBC O&Os and stream on the company’s recently acquired

WCAU and KYW also carry 4 p.m. newscasts, but both are handily beaten by WPVI’s play of The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Stations are beefing up news in other dayparts. Fox’s WTXF will launch an 11 a.m. newscast in October and is planning early-evening news. WPSG, a future CW affiliate, has a four-hour block of morning news, weather and traffic. And independent WFMZ carries a full complement of local news catering to eastern Pennsylvania and western New Jersey, including an 11:30 p.m. news in Spanish.

Comcast, the market’s major cable operator, recently scaled back production of its local cable news channel CN8 to focus on more-regional programming. The station laid off 40 staffers and dumped its late news, although it expanded its morning show.

WPVI has picked up The Rachael Ray Show to replace The Tony Danza Show at 10 a.m., and WPHL will add new talk shows from Greg Behrendt and Megan Mullally. WPSG recently renewed deals with the Phillies and Flyers.

Stations took in $626.1 million in 2005, down from $632.7 million in 2003, the previous non-political year, according to BIA Financial. (WPVI led with $178.5 million.) An influx of political spending from races in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware should help make up for weakened automotive and retail spending.

Says WPHL General Manager Vince Giannini, “Pennsylvania is known for its big races.”