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Independents’ Day of Reckoning

As our country prepares to celebrate its independence with the annual fireworks and barbecue bacchanalia, multiple TV stations are reveling in their own independence as well. Fox affiliate KTRV Boise and MyNetworkTV affiliate WBIN Derry (N.H.) announced in recent weeks that they’re going independent, and several other affiliates appear likely to follow suit.

Making your way as an independent is not impossible, but it is very difficult, and mighty costly. Stations with well-established newsrooms covering major news markets (including those where severe weather is part of life) have a shot, say local TV veterans, as do stations that are willing to spend big on top syndicated shows.

And it sure helps if you’re making the jump from a position of strength. “If you’re one of the top two performers [in a market], you’ve got a place,” says Bill Hague, senior VP at Frank N. Magid Associates. “If you’re No. 3 or 4, it’s very difficult.”

In May, Fox announced it had found a new partner in Boise, leaving longtime Fox affiliate KTRV scrambling to redefine itself. A month later, the station said it would be going independent, adding 1.5 hours of news a day, a half-dozen staffers, off-net sitcoms and dramas in prime and minor league sports.

A few days after KTRV’s announcement, WBIN, serving the Boston DMA, said it was breaking from MyNetworkTV to be a “locally owned, locally operated and truly independent television station.”

Also cut free from Fox are Nexstar’s WTVW Evansville (Ind.), KSFX Springfield (Mo.) and WFFT Ft. Wayne (Ind.). Nexstar had not announced at presstime how it plans to program those stations, but Mark Gordon, KSFX vice president and general manager, addressed the issue on the station’s site last week. He said the station—and its staffers—were not going anywhere, and asked viewers to “stay tuned as we determine what our new primetime line-up will be on September 1.”

A handful of stations have made a successful leap to independence, including Post-Newsweek’s WJXT Jacksonville, which split from CBS in 2002 after a 53-year partnership. WJXT remains a power in DMA No. 49, booking $25.5 million in 2010 revenue, according to BIA/Kelsey, though BIA shows a gradual decline in market share for WJXT in the last five years. Belo’s KTVK Phoenix, which broke from ABC in 1995, is the No. 3 revenue station in DMA No. 12, per BIA/Kelsey, and also has seen modest market share erosion in the last five years.

KTRV is No. 2 in Boise TV revenue, per BIA, miles behind Belo’s KTVB. KTRV management reached out to the successful indies around the country while they plotted their new strategy. They learned that WJXT had doubled its news output after the CBS divorce. “We had good news product and were able to expand it,” says Alan Frank, president and CEO of parent Post-Newsweek. “We built our ship around it.”

WJXT airs Everybody Loves Raymond, The King of Queens and Oprah Winfrey in primetime and will add Big Bang Theory and Dr. Oz in the fall. Bob Ellis, WJXT vice president and general manager, has bristled when the station is called an independent, believing that implies weak—or no—news. That’s hardly the case at WJXT, where there’s local news 4:30 to 9 a.m., noon, 5 to 7 p.m., and 10 to 11:30 p.m.

“The stars for us are our newscasts,” says Frank. “I don’t think you expand news if it’s low-rated. I don’t think you gain much from that.”

Multiple local TV executives privately describe losing an affiliation as a nightmare scenario, their characterizations ranging from “the world doesn’t need more Law & Order repeats” to “you’ll need a patient boss.” Networks give a station an undeniable cache. “There is network promotion and network quality,” says Hague. “Advertisers like to buy network.”

Top syndicated shows eat up a programming budget and, as Hague suggests, airing repeats in prime doesn’t offer nearly the promotional might of American Idol or Glee. “It costs a ton to put programming on for ratings that are not close to what you had,” says one group exec. “And when you have no promotional platform, you have to spend money outside the station.”

On the bright side, there is no network compensation to cough up, and an independent can truly live by the “hyper-local” ethos that every station GM likes to talk about.

“Our staff loves to be there,” says Frank of WJXT. “They’re controlling their own destiny and making their own shows. They’re doing what they love to do.”

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