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Down but not out

One month after the devastating attack on the World Trade Center, local TV stations are groping for some sense of normalcy.

Like other businesses in and around the city, the stations are feeling the economic aftershocks. New York City officials predicted last week that the city's economy will shrink by a staggering $105 billion over the next two years, due to lost tourism, failed businesses and escalating unemployment.

Making matters worse for the broadcasters: They lost millions in ad revenue when they preempted regular programming in the days following the attack for wall-to-wall news.

And some stations are still making do with limited over-the-air coverage. When the North Tower was struck, the stations that used it as their transmission site had to scramble to find and equip new sites. Although all are back on the air, coverage by most is spotty.

"It's just a very difficult situation," says Dennis Swanson, general manager of WNBC(TV), which along with WABC-TV and other displaced stations is broadcasting from distant transmission facilities in Alpine, N.J.

Fourteen-hour days (or longer) have been become routine for many station staffers and managers as they continue to cover the attack's aftermath and America's retaliatory strikes in Afghanistan, try to persuade advertisers to buy, and figure out how to restore coverage to every nook and cranny of the nation's No. 1 TV market.

"We're doing the best we can," says WPIX-TV General Manager Betty Ellen Berlamino.

Station executives are reluctant to guess (or tell) what the bottom line for 2001 will be. But BIA Financial Network, the Chantilly, Va.-based research firm that tracks broadcast spending in local markets, now estimates that TV ad dollars in the New York market will drop 16% in 2001, to approximately $1.45 billion. That's twice the decline that BIA was predicting for the nation's largest TV market prior to the Sept. 11 attack.

"I'm having difficulty thinking that 2001 will be as good as 1999" for New York, says BIA's Mark Fratrik. In 1999, BIA estimated that New York-market TV stations had revenue of $1.48 billion.

It's up to the city's retailers, he says. "It will be interesting to see how quickly they see some benefit to advertising again."

Competitive Media Reporting, which also tracks ad spending at individual stations, does not have year-to-date figures, but its estimates for the first six months show that the broadcasters were in trouble even before the terrorist assault.

According to CMR, WABC-TV's revenue fell 16% during the first half of the year, to $176.4 million. Fox-owned WWOR-TV also showed a 16% drop, to $52.7 million, while co-owned WNYW(TV) decreased 2%, to $128.6 million.

WNBC, with $161.7 million in ad revenue for the first six months, was down 5%, while Tribune's WPIX-TV collected $94.4 million, a 20% drop. WCBS-TV had $85 million, down 8%.

Of the two Spanish-language stations, Telemundo's WNJU-TV was up 36%, to $17.6 million, while Univision's WXTV-TV was down 30%, to $19.6 million.

The ratings in the market have been erratic since Sept. 11, with some wild swings. "Good Morning America
actually beat the Today
show one day last week," said one station source. "That hasn't happened in years and clearly signals a problem somewhere."

For the first 14 days of the October rating period (Sept. 27-Oct. 10), most of the stations show declines in sign-on-to-sign-off ratings, according to Nielsen Station Index. The two exceptions: WCBS-TV and Univision's WXTV-TV.

On the day of the attack, they were the only two TV stations with full-power backup transmitters on the Empire State Building and the only two whose market-wide coverage stayed more or less intact. WCBS-TV spurted to a 13.7 rating/24 share on Sept.11, about four times its normal viewing level. Univision's WXTV-TV more than doubled its average rating to a 3.2/6.

During the current October rating period, however, WCBS-TV's numbers have begun to return to normal; its average through the first 14 days is a 3.7/9, a 16% rating gain compared with the same period a year ago and putting it in a tie for second with WABC-TV, whose ratings are down 18%. For the same period, Univision has retained more than half the spurt it got from its attack coverage, averaging a 2.4/6, up 71% and tied for fourth in the market with WPIX-TV, which is down about 31%.

WNBC remains the market leader both on a total-day basis and in most local-news time periods. But its numbers are down: its sign-on-sign-off average so far in October is a 4.6/11, down about 28% in rating vs. the same period a year ago.

Through the first two weeks of the book, WNYW was in sole possession of third place, with a 2.5/6, down 30% in rating. WWOR-TV was in seventh, its 1.8/4 a 10% drop.

One telling statistic: Viewing attributed to sources other than the eight primary TV stations in the market (including cable and satellite) jumped 5.5 ratings points and 8 share points during the first two weeks of the October book.

Some executives warn not to give too much weight to the fall ratings because of the extraordinary circumstances. "This book will have no relevance at all," says Berlamino flatly. "It's not just the ratings and the coverage that are off; viewing patterns are off as well. People are watching news."

Adds Jim Clayton, general manager of Fox's WNYW and WWOR-TV: "It's probably not going to be very reliable for long-term planning."

Local sales executives at the stations estimate that they lost about $30 million in advertising in the first two weeks after the attacks, but some are hopeful that the money will come back during the fourth quarter.

So far, retailers haven't indicated what their plans are for the holiday season, local sales executives say. But it is still early. "We should have some inkling how that's going to go in about a month," says one ad executive.

WPIX-TV's Berlamino, for one, is sanguine. "It's not a doom-and-gloom situation. We are writing business every single day, and it's getting better every day. Right after the attack, there were lots of public-service ads on the air, but now there's a ton of advertising."

Both WCBS-TV General Manager Tony Petitti and Berlamino say advertisers have responded to President Bush's plea for businesses to start spending money again. "There's been a pretty strong response to that by the advertisers," says Petitti. "They're stepping up in patriotic fashion."

Says Berlamino: "First, you started to see a lot of image ads, and now you're seeing all the 0%-financing promotions."

Others say inventory for October and early November is actually kind of tight now. One local sales executive says that close political races in New Jersey and New York coupled with reassigned advertising from September and lower overall ratings have made inventory levels "very tight."

But the executive also says that rates are a lot lower than last year: "We're trying to weather a storm that none of us has ever been through before. We know fourth quarter is going to be way down. We just don't know how far down at this point."

Whereas the first week after Sept. 11 was commercial-free due to round-the-clock news coverage, many advertisers remained off the air the following week, says Nancy Petrino, senior vice president, regional broadcast director, Initiative Media. "Most clients kind of held off that week, taking a wait-and-see attitude."

Four weeks after the attack, she says, "we're seeing some clients coming back," although others are still out, rethinking their messages and redoing their spots.

Petrino says there has been "a lot of fluctuation" in the ratings since the attack, although less as stations boost power at alternative transmission sites. "We're certainly watching the ratings and taking note of shortfalls and asking them to make up the difference with make-goods."

Loss of the WTC transmitters has been mitigated by the fact that 81% of the 7.3 million TV homes in New York receive their broadcast signals via cable or satellite, not off-air.

Still, none of the broadcasters want to lose any of the homes that rely on broadcast signals or cabled home that have second or third sets not hooked to cable.

With the exception of WCBS-TV, none of the stations affected by the WTC collapse is back with full power and coverage. When they will be is uncertain. Some stations said it could take several years. According to Fox's Clayton, the major stations have agreed to jointly commission a feasibility study for getting everybody on the Empire State Building with permanent analog and digital transmission facilities.

Swanson thinks WNBC, for one, is in good shape. "We think that, with the power we're able to transmit at now [which is still lower than normal] that we should be able to cover almost 96% of our viewing areas. Our signal wouldn't be as strong in places like Brooklyn and a tier in southern New Jersey, but we've clearly improved our circumstances since Sept 11."

Clearly, Brooklyn is still a problem for several stations. One Brooklyn viewer who does not subscribe to cable reports that only WCBS-TV (ch. 2) comes in clearly. As of last week this viewer still could not get WPIX-TV (ch. 11) or WWOR-TV (ch. 9) at all. "Channel 5 [WNYW] and channel 7 [WABC-TV] are fuzzy and come in black-and-white, and channel 4 [WNBC] is also bad."

Long Island is also a stretch for the signals. Joe Lancia is a Manhasset, Nassau County, musician who also restores old TVs and short-wave radios. A lifetime non-cable subscriber, Lancia had a 10-foot mast on top of his house. After Sept. 11, he added 15 feet and a motorized, directional Yagi antenna and can now clearly "see" the Alpine site.

"Reception from Alpine is almost better than it was from the World Trade Center," he says. "I see no difference on 2, 4, 5." He has trouble getting 7, 9 and 11. "But I don't really watch them much anyway."