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In Full Swing

There are some new faces on Richmond-Petersburg television these days, and their names are McCain and Obama. A longtime Republican stronghold, Virginia is suddenly up for grabs. Polls show the candidates neck and neck, and the campaigns are desperate to seize Virginia's 13 electoral votes. The presidential ads turned up in July, and both camps should have a strong TV presence right up until November.

“For the first time in my time here, presidential spending is having an impact,” says WWBT VP/General Manager Don Richards, a 20-year Richmond veteran. “It's helping us get through an otherwise challenging year.”

One of those challenges has been an extraordinary amount of ownership changes. NBC outlet WWBT was acquired by Raycom from Lincoln Financial in April. CW affiliate WUPV shifted from Lockwood to Southeastern Media in 2006. In late August, the Department of Justice blocked Raycom's $85 million sale of CBS outlet WTVR to Sinclair, as Sinclair owns Fox affiliate WRLH.

DOJ is pushing for a quick sale, and WTVR VP/General Manager Peter Maroney thinks it'll happen. “There was very good interest in the station prior to the agreement with Sinclair,” he says. “All the interested parties from before have come back, along with some new guys.”

Richmond recently shifted from the No. 59 to No. 58 Nielsen DMA. The market took in $95 million last year, according to BIA Financial. WWBT led with $30.6 million, while WTVR and Young Broadcasting's ABC outlet WRIC are right around $22 million. Comcast is the dominant cable player, while Verizon's FiOS service is gaining ground.

Managers say the local economy is a mixed bag. As the Virginia capital, Richmond's job base is solid. It's home to corporations such as Philip Morris, Circuit City and Media General, which owns the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Presidential spending has made up for a senatorial race, between former governors Mark Warner and Jim Gilmore, that hasn't heated up the way many expected.

“We're going to be down a little bit from last year, but we're holding our own,” says WRLH General Sales Manager Mike Dunlop. “For the most part, Richmond has not felt the economic impact as much as other markets.”

WWBT had a major May book, winning total day household ratings, along with morning, evening and late news. Richards says Raycom has energized the station. “We're able to do a lot of things we couldn't do before,” he says, most notably switching to HD local programming on Aug. 8.

Elsewhere in the market, WRLH, No. 2 in late news with its 10 p.m. offering, is boosting prime with double runs of Two and a Half Men starting at 7. WRIC won primetime on the strength of Grey's Anatomy and Dancing With the Stars. WTVR, the runner-up at 11 p.m., is doing a successful real estate classifieds business on the Web. WUPV, whose 10 p.m. news is produced by WWBT, draws young viewers with Gossip Girl and 90210. “The CW has done a nice job grabbing women 18-34,” says General Manager John Rezabeck. “The trick is finding advertisers who are interested in that demo.”

The presidential race will keep the local news outlets hopping for the next five weeks and beyond. “It's been 44 years since the state has voted for a Democratic candidate for president,” says Maroney, referring to Lyndon Johnson's election in 1964. “A lot of people think it will happen again this time.”

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