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Cape Fearless

With the Wilmington, N.C., market poised for its early digital transition on Sept. 8 (see cover story, p. 10), the broadcast world looks to the No. 135 DMA. Managers here say they put aside their competitive instincts and worked together to educate the market about the shutoff. “All the stations took turns going to events,” says WWAY General Manager Andy Combs. “We covered a lot more ground that way.”

Raycom's WECT has a strong presence in Wilmington. The NBC affiliate grabbed half the market's revenue in 2007, according to BIA Financial, and continues to rule news—no small accomplishment after what staffers went through in the past year. General Manager Karl Davis was killed in a motorcycle accident in January, just a day after the going-away party for General Sales Manager Beth Young. Raycom Senior VP Marty Edelman was a soothing presence at the station, say staffers, and quickly set about finding a new manager. WBOY Clarksburg, W. Va., veteran Gary McNair took over in February.

WECT continued its winning ways in May, capturing total day ratings, along with morning, evening and late news—taking the latter with a 9 household rating/32 share at 11, better than WSFX's 7.4/14.6 at 10. “As long as a station like this doesn't do stupid things and doesn't get complacent, you can achieve these kinds of numbers,” McNair says.

Late news was actually a win-win for WECT, which produces news for WSFX, a Southeastern Media-owned Fox affiliate.

WWAY is a lively presence as well. Morris Multimedia's ABC affiliate was runner-up in total day and prime in May, and produces the 7 p.m. news for Capitol Broadcasting's low-power CBS affiliate WILM, which also airs news from sister WRAL Raleigh.

Time Warner is the dominant cable operator in Wilmington, while DISH and DirecTV battle for satellite customers.

The market brought in $27.7 million in 2007. WECT led with $13.8 million, ahead of WWAY's $7 million. BIA finds Wilmington to be in solid financial shape; it's the No. 130 DMA in terms of revenue. General Electric and Corning are major employers, and tourists flock to the area's beaches and restaurants. Newcomer McNair was pleased to find the downtown area quite happening. “Historic downtown Wilmington is very active,” he says. “It's a pretty neat place.”

Still, the economy could be better. Wilmington has long been attractive to Northerners looking to retire to warmer climes without heading too far south. But people are having trouble selling their houses elsewhere in the U.S., which is crimping the local real estate market.

With their digital preparations behind them, the stations can concentrate on their fall plans. WWAY is aiming to launch high-definition local programming this month. The station also debuted the weekly WWAY High School Coach's Corner in late August.

WILM, which flipped the switch on its digital operations Aug. 17, has the new public affairs talk show Byline: Wilmington, hosted by radio vet Donn Ansell. “It's like a Face the Nation or Meet the Press,” says General Manager Constance Knox.

WECT, meanwhile, continues to work on keeping its healthy market share. “We'll just keep executing every day,” McNair says, “and try to put out the best product we can.”