Capitol Offense in Albany

Dysfunction is the norm in New York politics, and it sometimes turns surreal. A year ago, the New York Post sent Sunny the Clown to patrol the circus-like Senate floor. This time around, the State Senate in Albany is scrambling to get a budget done, nearly three months after deadline.

The weirdness gives Albany newsrooms plenty of news to cover, and the delayed budget means lots of issues money from unions and groups that want their interests represented in the budget. “All the voices are trying to get the ear of the legislators in town,” says WNYT VP/ General Manager Steve Baboulis. “There’s a lot of revenue coming from that direction.”

Also making the Albany-Schenectady-Troy market unique is that three stations are owned by companies that have done recent time in bankruptcy. CBS affiliate WRGB and CW outlet WCWN are owned by Freedom Broadcasting, which exited Chapter 11 in late April. And ABC affi liate WTEN is part of Young Broadcasting, which has been in bankruptcy since February 2009. WRGB, the only station doing local news in HD, is holding strong: Its $16.68 million in 2009 revenue was tops in DMA No. 57, according to BIA/Kelsey, ahead of the $16.1 million raked in by Hubbard’s NBC affiliate WNYT.

Michael Sechrist is WTEN’s interim general manager; a full-time GM (and news director) will be hired once regulatory issues are worked out and Gray Television takes over WTEN’s management (see Station to Station, June 14). But WTEN has gained ground despite the stormy management picture. “I think we’ve done a pretty doggone good job competing with the other stations in the market,” General Sales Manager Ron Romines says, singling out assistant news director Elaine Peake for keeping the newsroom focused.

WNYT had an extraordinary May sweeps, winning the morning, early evening and late news household races—the latter with a 5.0 rating/19 share, ahead of WTEN’s 4.0 rating/15 share. WRGB won primetime and noon news, while the big three were virtually tied in total day ratings, WRGB ahead by a hair in share. WNYT’s Baboulis credits the “Coverage You Can Trust” branding for winning late news despite a lagging prime. “We offer a solid, reliable, interesting view of the day’s events,” he says.

WRGB has an interim GM, too, in General Sales Manager Vince Nelson, who claims the station thrives on a strong advocacy brand. “We follow the money and ask the tough questions,” he says. “This kind of journalism is catching on—we get hundreds of story ideas every month from viewers.”

Also in the hunt are Newport TV’s Fox affiliate WXXA and Venture Technologies’ MyNetwork- TV affiliate WNYA. WXXA added 30 minutes to its 10 p.m. newscast a year ago and tacked on a half-hour to a Sunday-night newscast at the beginning of 2010. “We’ve renewed our commitment to expanding news in the market,” says VP/General Manager Bill Sally.

Time Warner Cable is the dominant pay-TV operator, and its news channel YNN covers politics doggedly, with former newspaper reporter Liz Benjamin hosting Capital Tonight. Formerly Capital News 9, the channel recently turned its longtime tagline, “Your News Now,” into its main branding to facilitate content sharing among TWC’s New York news channels. “We’ve unified the brand without changing our hyper-local approach,” says News Director Gary Holmes.

While upstate New York’s financial ills are well known, Albany has held up well, thanks to stable forces such as government and the area’s universities. “When things got really bad in the rest of the country, it wasn’t quite as bad in our area,” Baboulis points out. “We have more moderate ups and downs.”

The stations’—and Capitol’s—ups and downs keep the news race lively. “The market is as competitive as you’ll find,” Romines says. “No station really runs away with it consistently, so it’s a fun market to compete in.”

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Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.