Holy Smokeys

The midsize Knoxville, Tenn., market boasts some of the strongest—and most competitive—broadcast stations in the country.

Last November, NBC affiliate WBIR notched the highest-rated 6 p.m. news among all stations in Nielsen's 56 metered markets. WBXX routinely reigns as The WB's top local outlet nationwide. Their competitors are strong as well. ABC affiliate WATE outdelivers network averages in prime time and is charging ahead in early-evening news. Gray Television-owned WVLT is a CBS affiliate and carries UPN on a secondary digital broadcast channel, a strategy Gray employs in several markets.

Competition is increasingly cutthroat. At 4 p.m., WATE airs The Oprah Winfrey Show, which it grabbed from WBIR two years ago. While some competitors concede the hour to Oprah, WBIR launched a local lifestyle show, Style, which usually trails the syndication powerhouse by just two rating points. Last November, WVLT added the market's first 4 p.m. newscast, which gets good numbers. “There is an audience there,” says General Manager Chris Baker. “We want to offer news in non-traditional times.”

WATE has used Oprah as a launch pad. In the last four ratings books, the station has beaten or tied WBIR's 5 p.m. news. While WBIR still rules at 6 p.m, WATE's ratings are growing in that time slot. “We're a station on the move,” says WATE General Manager Jan Wade.

WATE also produces the 10 p.m. news for Fox affiliate WTNZ, and WBIR creates a daily 12-minute mini-newscast for WBXX. “We're a very strong WB affiliate,” says WBXX General Manager Dan Phillippi, “and we wanted to compete at 10 p.m. with news.” Gannett's WBIR also operates a cable news channel, 10 News 2, and has a news partnership with the Scripps-owned Knoxville News Sentinel.

Knoxville itself is on the rise. In the past decade, the 22-county area has moved up from the No. 64 TV market to No. 58, according to Nielsen. TV stations took in $74.9 million in gross revenue last year, up from $72.1 million in 2003, according to BIA Financial. WBIR was the top grosser in 2004, with $28 million in revenue.

Such growth is prompting increased spending from the furniture and restaurant categories. The Smokey Mountains add tourism dollars; the university, the Tennessee Valley Authority and corporations such as Regal Cinemas, Pilot Oil and Scripps Networks—the birthplace of HGTV—also boost revenue.

Its bullish economy keeps Knoxville's stations on their toes. “We try to be in as many places as we can,” says WBIR VP/General Manager Jeff Lee. “Our competitors keep getting better, and we have to as well.”