Declaration of Independents

In Jacksonville, Fla., independent TV station WJXT has turned out a product just as good—better, in some cases—as the network affiliates'. The station, owned by Post-Newsweek, airs the No. 1 newscast in five slots during the day, and its prime time lineup—Dr. Phil and local news—places a respectable third out of six major stations, beating the ABC, Fox and WB affiliates last November.

Still, media buyers bristle at paying top dollar for WJXT's prime time lineup. So the station has to push and pitch to clients constantly. “They want to be in CSI,” says acting General Manager Larry Blackerby. “We have numbers, and we have to be relentless in telling people about our success.”

In Detroit recently with his team, Blackerby spent time persuading media buyers at PHD to buy prime time ads for its clients Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep. When he showed them the strong prime time ratings, some at PHD were astonished, he says.

Independent TV stations—feisty local broadcasters that go up against the biggest entertainment companies in the world—are suddenly enjoying a revival of sorts. Come September, their numbers will roughly double when more than 100 new independents could flood the market as The WB and UPN shut down to form The CW network. Some stations will not win The CW affiliation, and, with the fall season looming, managers at UPNs and WBs are scrambling to find other models.

Dont be afraid

For the undecided, becoming an independent is akin to a high-stakes crapshoot. Some stations that try the format may end up on the auction block. “You hope that, if you build it, viewers will come,” says KTVK Phoenix General Manager Mark Higgins. “But stations that are afraid that it won't work or will cost too much money shouldn't get into this.”

Profitable independents point to three crucial elements for success against big-network affiliates: a lineup of hyper-local news and hot syndication; smart packaging and promotion; and new ad opportunities. WJXT and Belo Corp.'s KTVK, for example, two of the most successful independents, both air more hours of local news than their rivals and run viewer favorites The Oprah Winfrey Show and Dr. Phil. To stand out from its rivals, WZMY Boston uses the nickname MyTV, rather than its call letters, in TV listings and ads.

Unlike network affiliates, independent stations have to fill their schedule 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and sell all of the time to advertisers. Without network prime time to draw viewers, independents have to buy more syndicated product or produce local news or specials.

And affiliates get a promotional boost from network hits, such as CSI or American Idol. “We have to recruit viewers on our own,” says KTVK's Higgins.

So far, CBS Corp. and Warner Bros., co-owners of The CW, have divided affiliations in most of the top 30 markets between CBS-owned UPNs and Tribune Broadcasting's WB outlets. In addition, many of the WB 100+ stations, mostly cable-only channels in the smaller Nielsen markets 100 and higher, are expected to become CW affiliates. But The CW still has to pick a partner in dozens of midsize markets, including Las Vegas, Oklahoma City and Jackson, Miss.

Last week, the network began contacting 200 prospective affiliates. As they prepare for those negotiations, many station managers say their first choice is to align with The CW. If they do not win affiliation, some could sign on with a new service from one of the most affected station groups. Fox Television Group owns nine UPNs that will not be affiliated with The CW and is creating an alternative prime time programming service for its stations.

But many station consultants and media buyers are urging non-CW stations to morph into hyper-local independents.

“Without a network, a station has to be creative,” says Trish Pickering, senior spot media buyer for Carat USA. “Something that is localized, like sports, news or entertainment, can work.”

Independent stations thrived in the 1970s and '80s, offering movies, reruns of popular TV shows and baseball games. But by the 1990s, the explosion of cable meant that dozens of channels, from TV Land to TBS, offered similar programming all day long. At the same time, the creation of Fox (1986), The WB and UPN (both 1995) converted many independents to network affiliates, leaving only a few dozen indies scattered across the country.

Some of the strongest independents are former network affiliates. KTVK, for example, used to be an ABC station, and WJXT was once a top-rated CBS outlet. Now, as independents, each carries eight hours of news each day. McKinnon Broadcasting's independent KUSI San Diego, briefly a UPN station in the mid 1990s, broadcasts a hefty 7½ hours of highly rated local news.

One high-profile exception is Young Broadcasting's KRON San Francisco. After decades as a strong NBC outlet, the station lost its affiliation in 2001. As an indie, KRON beefed up to 8½ hours of local news a day and bought Dr. Phil, but KRON's ratings are well below those of its days as an NBC outlet. And its share of market revenue has dropped from 21.8% in 2001 to 8.7% in 2004, according to BIA Financial. A KRON executive did not return a call for comment.

For many orphaned WB and UPN affiliates, the instinctual reaction will be to buy more syndicated shows or dust off old reruns from their library. Some will add double runs of middling syndicated fare, like The Tyra Banks Show or The People's Court, as temporary solutions for vacant time periods. These are quick fixes, says station consultants, with potentially dire consequences.

“We're telling stations they should not just try to fill time periods,” says Bill Hague, VP of corporate development for Frank N. Magid Associates. “What will make them unique not just in September but in five or 10 years? It is localism; that's all a station really has.”

Magid uses a pyramid to diagram levels of programming at a TV station. Local news and programming provide the base, followed by network programming in the middle and syndication as the smallest sliver on top, the place of least importance. As they advise prospective independents, Magid execs are looking to grow the base and add more local fare. In Chicago, Magid client WCIU, a longtime independent, recently hired its first development executive to create locally produced programs. “[Independents] control our own destiny,” says Neal Sabin, executive VP of WCIU parent Weigel Broadcasting, “and we have to give the viewers something special.”

For many of the prospective independents, station consultants will prescribe local news to raise ratings and build viewer loyalty. But starting up a news operation can cost several million dollars, more than many WB or UPN affiliates see in revenue each year.

Still, there are other ways to get into the news game. The easiest solution is for stations in duopoly markets, where a company owns a Big Four station and a prospective indie. In Los Angeles, for example, CBS Corp.'s KCBS and KCAL share newsrooms and personnel, and KCAL boasts a well-rated prime time news block. In smaller markets, some UPNs and WBs already air news produced by their sister station and could air additional newscasts, such as a morning show or late-afternoon news.

If a station is not part of a duopoly, consultants advise them to partner with another station in the market or the cable system to produce news. A handful of WB and UPN affiliates already use this model, turning over a cut of revenue in exchange for newscasts. In Knoxville, Tenn., for example, WB station WBXX airs a 12-minute mini-news each night produced by NBC affiliate WBIR. “We're a very strong WB affiliate,” says WBXX General Manager Dan Phillippi, “and we wanted to compete at 10 p.m. with news.”

Sports can be another major draw for non-affiliated stations. With their prime time free, independents can carry night games, satisfying teams that feel pressured to show some games on free, over-the-air TV. In hyper-competitive Dallas-Ft. Worth, KDFI, Fox Television's only existing independent, is known for its sports fare, including Texas Rangers baseball games and Dallas Stars hockey.

Many small markets, of course, do not have pro teams. In those situations, consultants urge indies to carry college sports, high school football and wrestling, or even fishing competitions—anything with a local hook.

Even more-specialized service can gain a toehold in some cities. Los Angeles, San Francisco and Honolulu each have stations targeting Asian-American viewers. In Los Angeles, the largest Hispanic market, NBC Universal owns a Telemundo station and an independent, KWHY, which specializes in Mexican movies and local news.

Many station managers say new independents could revive local programming, including children's shows and new formats such as reality. WJXT, for one, has produced five seasons of a local talent competition, Gimme the Mike, and 32 other stations syndicated the format.

Pushing "infotainment"

Station managers are particularly enthusiastic over new advertising opportunities, such as “infotainment” programs: chat fests where advertisers pitch products in carefully labeled sponsored segments. The programs, which have drawn some fire from news purists, “are ways for advertisers to integrate into content and can benefit the station financially and in the community,” says Sue Johenning, executive VP/director of local broadcast for Initiative Media.

WCIU is developing such a show. WZMY displays advertisers in two-minute vignettes on afternoon show My New England. President Diane Sutter says the response from advertisers has been so strong that WZMY is now creating theme episodes, such as weddings and home improvement, to lure new clients.

My New England is just one of WZMY's efforts to appear hyper-local. In prime, it runs a local news and talk show, MyTV Prime, and the station's weatherman gives hourly forecasts. Even promos for syndicated fare, such as The Ellen DeGeneres Show, feature local viewers who sign up for the station's online fan club.

In a market where the competitors are owned by deep-pocketed media companies like CBS and Hearst-Argyle, Sutter says her station has to differentiate itself.

“Any independent's challenge is to show up in the ratings,” she explains. “Our answer is to be local in everything we do, whether it is news, lifestyle or entertainment.”