The hard way

Months before the announcement of the breakup between CBS and Post-Newsweek's WJXT(TV) Jacksonville, Fla., other stations in the market had figured out that Post-Newsweek President Alan Frank and station General Manager Sherry Burns were not bluffing.

The cost of syndicated programming in Jacksonville was rising. That meant Frank and Burns were stockpiling shows so that they would be prepared to dump CBS and take WJXT independent.

Everybody knew that the station's 53-year affiliation with CBS was on the rocks. In 2001, the network and station had been able to hammer out a one-year extension of the affiliation, but they continued to squabble. The big issue was compensation, the estimated $2 million CBS paid the station each year for carrying network commercials.

CBS wanted to eliminate the compensation. No compensation, no deal, said WJXT.

As the other station executives had guessed, WJXT wasn't bluffing. But neither was CBS. So, in April, WJXT announced that the affiliation under which it had prospered and dominated the 53rd-largest TV market was ending. WJXT would become an independent on July 15.

"It will be hard to do as well as or better than we've done," says Burns. "But, obviously, we think we'll do very well. We've got a lot of the same advertisers; we don't expect to lose any. We've opened up the schedule, and people are assuming our audience is going to be younger—although our demos are good right now. We're in control of our own destiny."

The WJXT-CBS breakup has transformed "sleepy little Jacksonville," as one GM calls it, into one of TV's liveliest markets.

Here's what's happening: Post-Newsweek's WJXT drops CBS; Clear Channel's WTEV-TV drops UPN and picks up CBS. Clear Channel's Fox affiliate, WAWS, picks up UPN and schedules its programming to run after Fox prime time and local news.

Meanwhile, Gannett's strong NBC affiliate, WTLV, and weak ABC affiliate, WJXX, and Media General's news-less WB affiliate, WJWB, sit, content in the knowledge that viewers know where to find them.

Come July 15, thanks to the CBS-WJXT breakup and liberalized local-ownership rules, Jacksonville will have five network affiliates in the hands of two owners, Clear Channel (CBS, Fox and UPN) and Gannett (NBC and ABC). At least in terms of broadcasting, Jacksonville is a very special place.

For Post-Newsweek and WJXT managers, the disappearing compensation offer from CBS was an affront that ignored the station's impressive history and the success it has helped bring CBS in the market. Staffers are looking at independence as a crusade, says Station Manager Ann Sutton, noting that Spencer Johnson's book about change, Who Moved My Cheese?
, is being passed around.

As a CBS affiliate, according to BIA Financial, WJXT had revenue of nearly $30 million in 2001. (Some local executives consider that number a bit high.) The station's challenge is to maintain its profitability without CBS's prime time sitcoms and dramas, afternoon soaps, early-morning news, Dan Rather and David Letterman.

It can be done, say Frank and Burns. Costs will rise as the station spends more for top-tier syndicated programming and expanded news programming, and viewership in most dayparts will fall when the CBS programming goes away. But offsetting those negatives will be many more spots to sell, particularly in news.

"It helps that we'll have the inventory," says Burns. "It also helps that we have faith in our product."

What is that product? Mostly news. WJXT plans to expand its news from 41/2 to 81/4 hours a day, adding a two-hour morning news block to replace CBS's low-rated The Early Show,
expanding the noon news to an hour, and introducing
hour newscast at 10 p.m. The station will also offer a newscast with an international dimension to compete with Rather at 6 p.m.

In place of its current 11 newscast, it will air the 15-minute Eyewitness News Express. Because it will end at 11:15, subsequent late-night programs will begin and end on the quarter hour. Viewers bored with the waning minutes of The Tonight Show
can switch at 12:15 a.m. to In the Heat of the Night.

If you like Frasier, you'll love WJXT in prime time. A double run of Frasier
will dominate WJXT's weeknight prime with a double-run at 9—except on Tuesdays when fans of the TV shrink will have the choice of turning to WTLV for a first-run episode or stay with WJXT for the show from which Frasier
spun, Cheers. Cheers
and Access Hollywood
will also be staples of WJXT prime.

In daytime, the station loses soaps and The Price Is Right
and adds two supermarket-shopping shows and second runs of Maury
and Texas Justice. In the fall, Dr. Phil
will replace Sally
before Oprah.

Frank says the station has some strong programming in the pipeline. WJXT will offer King of Queens
and Becker
in fall 2003. Both are shows that did well on the station in CBS prime.

Frank sees plenty of cause for optimism. "We feel we'll be successful in the mornings with a local show and that we'll have a successful daytime lineup. We'll be expanding our noon news, which does high ratings. I don't know if our 6:30
World News With Tim Wills
will win the time period, but it will be competitive."

Burns expects the 10 o'clock news will work. "This market likes to go to bed early. It's going to be news of record, not just hard news. We're beefing up our investigative unit.

"It's unrealistic to think we can equal our current prime time ratings," she concedes. "But a significant rating will be valuable to our station."The extra ad inventory adds up. WJXT's Local Sales Manager Tom Becker explains that, as a CBS affiliate, the station currently gets about 132 spots per week for three hours a night in prime time. Figuring an average 9 rating, that brings $1,125 per spot and $148,500 a week.

But, as an independent with only two hours in prime time before the news, Becker says, the station will get a total of 405 spots a week. The station expects to keep 60% of its average viewership. If it does, all those spots will bring in $250,000 week—an increase of about $100,000 over CBS. "And that doesn't include our 10 o'clock news," Becker adds.

Other Jacksonville broadcasters think it is unrealistic that WJXT will retain 60% of its prime time audience.

WJXT will need all the revenue it can get. It now has to pay for its prime time programming (sources say it's paying a few thousand dollars a week for Frasier
and King of Queens), and it has to pay to produce the extra hours of news. "Our margins will go down this year and next," Frank says. "But eventually, we believe within two years, we'll be at our current level of profits or higher."

With its 10 o'clock news, WJXT will be going head-to-head with Clear Channel's WAWS. And despite WAWS's head start, some believe WJXT will prevail.

"WAWS has been the only game in town," says a local executive. "But 'JXT is a very polished news operation with a strong following, and they should win big, unless Clear Channel invests a lot of money in its product."

Bill Moll, the head of Clear Channel's TV group, who happily snapped up the CBS affiliation, acknowledges WJXT's strength in the market. "They've got news talent that's recognized in the market," he says. "They've got a strong head start."

But the good news, he notes, is that, over the years, WJXT's audience has developed a habit of watching CBS programming. Do viewers watch programs or stations? "I think it's a little of both," Moll says.

WTEV/WAWS General Manager Susan Adams Loyd is less generous in her comments. "WJXT is a very strong local news brand, but it's an aging product with old-skewing demos. KTVK's success [as an independent in Phoenix after having been an ABC affiliate] was another time. There's not enough good programming out there."

Adams Loyd acknowledges that the market's new independent "has a shot at mornings," but she is not ready to concede late news. "There's no tradition for them at 10 o'clock, and they'll have no lead-in, no flow. The Fox news viewer is different. Certainly, they'll have an impact. But we're the incumbent."

Gannett's Ken Tonning, who runs both WTLV and WJXX, believes that change is good for TV stations—as long as it's not his stations that are changing. "Right now," he says, "there's so much confusion in marketplace we're getting huge buys just because of the uncertainty."

Mike Liff, GM at Media General's WB affiliate WJWB, says his station has "been an ABC, an NBC, an ABC again and now a WB. It's nice not to be changing. But I look at WJXT's strength and say that anything can happen. Turning the market upside down like this makes it really fun."

Going independent has a mixed history. KRON-TV San Francisco has suffered massive loss of viewership since it switched from NBC to an independent at the beginning of this year. But that station maintains that it's doing well and argues that comparing its former NBC affiliate numbers is hardly a fair measure.

On the other hand, KTVK Phoenix, now Belo-owned, successfully made the transition from ABC affiliate to independent in the mid 1990s and continues to prosper.

KTVK's former general manager, Sue Schwartz, now running Meredith's CBS affiliate WGCL-TV Atlanta, has been given much of the credit for KTVK's transition. "All around the country today," she says, "stations are trying to determine if they're better off controlling their own destiny or letting the network control their destiny. It's triggered by the relationship with the network itself. If you're a strong television station, you have the ability to consider [going independent] as an option.

"You need to ask: How strong is your news effort? How tied-in to the community are you? How much is your image tied in to the network? And can you live with the change in the margins?"