Full-Court Press

Unlike many midsize markets, where one station dominates for decades, the leader title is up for grabs in Louisville, Ky. Belo Corp.'s ABC affiliate WHAS is the long-time news king, but its rivals aren't content to be runners-up. Backed by big media companies, they've made up ground by strengthening their news and bolstering syndicated fare. WHAS is still No. 1 in early-evening and morning news, but Raycom Media's NBC outlet WAVE and Hearst-Argyle–owned CBS affiliate WLKY are within striking distance. In the late-news race, WLKY has a slim lead over WHAS and WAVE.

In the basketball-mad home of the University of Louisville, hoops analogies flow freely. “This market is like having three No. 1 picks in the [NCAA] tournament,” says WAVE General Manager Steve Langford of the competition.

Even the non-traditional affiliates play ball. Block Communications-owned Fox outlet WDRB broadcasts a 10 p.m. news that rates nearly as well as its competitors' 11 p.m. news. In January, Cascade Broadcasting's The WB affiliate WBKI premiered a 10 p.m. news produced by WHAS; it averaged a solid 2.2 rating/3 share during sweeps. “It legitimizes the station and says we are a player,” says Cascade CEO Carol LaFever. “About 30% of market revenue goes to local news, and now we are able to swim in that.”

WHAS General Manager Bob Klingle says the 10 p.m. news increases his station's profile. “There is money to be made there, and we wanted a piece.”

While WBKI's 10 p.m. news is rating well, WDRB is securely in the lead, posting a 7/10 in February. “We hold the mountain,” says General Manager Bill Lamb, “and we have to play defense.” WDRB doesn't see the ratings firsthand, since Block does not subscribe to Nielsen ratings for WDRB and UPN affiliate WFTE. The stations use national ratings to estimate their performance. In September, WBKI will become a CW affiliate, and WFTE will switch to My Network TV.

Station managers say Louisville's economy is on a slight upswing, bolstered by downtown redevelopment projects, including a new arena for the university. But the media market has been stagnant. In 2004, local broadcasters grossed $104.4 million, according to BIA Financial, a tick above the 2003 tally. WHAS led with $26.5 million.

The ad market is improving, say station execs, with car dealers and the medical and banking categories spending more. “This is not a market growing by leaps and bounds,” says WLKY General Manager Jim Carter, “but the local economy is good.”