Hard-Hit Stations Assess Damage

When four hurricanes slammed Florida and the East Coast in six weeks, stations were devastated. Millions were lost in ad revenue, and markets are only now beginning to recover.

Six stations in West Palm Beach, one of the hardest-hit areas, lost $3 million in ad revenue as a result of Hurricane Frances. Another $1 million-$2 million loss is blamed on Hurricane Jeanne, according to Brian Loller, general manager of WPTV West Palm Beach. And that doesn't count the damage done by Hurricanes Charley and Ivan.

In addition, political advertising, which was expected to be a boon, took a hit. "The campaigns backed off for a couple of days," Loller points out, "and balanced what was appropriate with what people were going through."

Not only did Florida stations lose monies, but they also lost Nielsen ratings. The impact was so severe that West Palm Beach had only nine nights of Nielsen ratings in September, Loller says, adding that the market's stations are now up and running.

"We hope to get back to a normal course of business in October," add Loller.

But Nielsen problems in West Palm Beach pale in comparison with those at Fort Myers/Naples, the 83rd-largest TV market.

Donita Todd, vice president and general manager for WTFX Fort Myers, says her station has not received overnight ratings since Aug. 13. The northern part of the market, Charlotte County, is still recovering from Charley, leaving Nielsen's samples incomplete for the six stations in the market.

"We've got new fall programming starting, and we don't have a good clear idea where we're at," Todd says. "We want to make sure that, when the sample is back, there's nothing missing geographically and demographically." The financial impact here, she adds, was much less than in West Palm Beach.

Miami was luckier.

Though not directly hit by a storm, it was always "in the cone" of potential landfall, says Pam Barber, regional sales manager for WFOR Miami. That meant preempting shows and spots. WFOR had many cancellations but moved its prime time lineup to the local UPN station during Jeanne. "We're starting to see the shutters come off the windows, so I think the turnaround will be pretty quick," she says.

Once insurance money floods into Florida, things are expected to turn around—for stations and retailers. "I worked in Miami after Hurricane Andrew, and the first 30-60 days after the storm, advertisers were still getting their businesses back on track," Loller says. "But when the checks come in, business starts booming."

For now, the goal is to re-energize staff. "Our folks are exhausted," says Alan Frank, president of Post-Newsweek, which owns WPLG Miami, WJXT Jacksonville, and WKMG Orlando.

"When you have people working 12 hours on and 12 hours off, it's difficult and expensive," Frank says. "But it's money well spent. We're doing what we should do as broadcasters."