Follow the Leader

Across central West Virginia, the longtime market leader continues to dominate local TV. As it has for years, WSAZ won every newscast in November sweeps. What has changed are the station's corporate ties. In December, Gray Television bought WSAZ for $186 million from Emmis Communications.

Station bosses don't expect major changes, though. “Our ratings and our share of market are at an all-time high,” says General Manager Don Ray.

In Nielsen's No. 64 TV market, Huntington is home to Marshall University, and Charleston is the state capital. But broadcasters are challenged by a vast and rural region, which covers 33 counties and parts of Ohio and Kentucky.

Top-rated NBC affiliate WSAZ and CBS outlet WOWK maintain news and sales staffs in both cities. But WSAZ goes one step further: It divides its 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts into two feeds—one for Charleston, the other for the rest of the market.

“We split the news so we can be a regional station and give everyone the news they want,” Ray says. The newscasts share some segments but have different anchors.

The market boasts an abundance of news, with five stations broadcasting local product. The WB affiliate WHCP, which also broadcasts UPN programming, recently entered the news game. The station recruited Tom McGee, who had worked at WOWK and ABC affiliate WCHS, to be lead anchor and, on Nov. 7, debuted 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts. Ratings are small, but General Manager Chuck Jones is encouraged. “Local news seems to boost the other stations,” he says. “We're competing very well.”

Viewers also have a new morning option: Fox outlet WVAH's new 7 a.m. news. “When the three affiliates go to network morning news, we're providing a local service,” says General Manager Harold Cooper. Sinclair Broadcasting, which owns ABC affiliate WCHS, also operates the Fox station and provides news and programming. WVAH's 7 a.m. news is hosted by the same anchors as WCHS' 5-7 a.m. block.

Earlier this fall, WOWK dropped its 5 p.m. news to add Dr. Phil, which it poached from WSAZ, as a lead-in for its 6 p.m. newscast. “We've solidified our schedule,” says General Manager Bray Cary, “and we are growing our local news.”

Local broadcasters grossed $65 million in 2004, according to BIA Financial, with a big boost from political advertising. West Virginia is a battleground state, and WSAZ and WOWK were among the top 10 stations nationwide in political ads sold in 2004. Station managers are predicting active political spending for 2006.