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Knoxville Stations Volunteer Their Brands’ Benefits

While the University of Tennessee Volunteers football team has been up and down over the last few decades, WBIR has been the Knoxville market leader for more than 30 years, with the same brand: “Straight from the Heart.”

“We’ve been very fortunate—we determined who we are, and viewers like it,” says Jeff Lee, GM of the Tegna-owned NBC affiliate. “Having the right brand and knowing who you are is beneficial.”

Brands are critical to the success of the top stations in DMA No. 61. In a city the size of Knoxville (fewer than 200,000 people), Lee says, a station can have a big impact on the community.

During NBC’s broadcast of the Super Bowl last February, WBIR gave one of its two 30-second promos to its viewers to highlight their “Straight from the Heart” stories. Chosen out of hundreds, the five finalists each produced a one-minute vignette that aired during WBIR’s 5 p.m. news the week of the game. The viewers voted for the “super story” winner—about an amputee high school quarterback—and WBIR had its news crew there to capture his reaction to seeing the story on the air.

WBIR, which won a 2014 Edward R. Murrow Award for overall excellence among small-market TV stations and another award this year for its sports reporting, produces six and a half hours of local programming a day and shows its newscast at 20 gas pumps around town. “It’s all about being there for viewers wherever and whenever they need us,” Lee says.

On Oct. 24, the station is partnering with Mobile Meals and Second Harvest Food Bank to launch “Connecting Hearts,” an initiative that gives people opportunities to spend time with and deliver food to seniors in need.

“It’s more than just a brand; it’s the way we conduct ourselves internally and externally,” Lee says. “We can make things happen and help make the community a better place.”

Media General-owned WATE Knoxville launched its “On Your Side” brand 18 months ago and is already reaping the benefits. Dean Littleton, WATE Knoxville VP and general manager, says the ABC affiliate has seen solid revenue growth and is up in year-to-year ratings in every news time period.

“The focus on this brand allows us to stay on point,” Littleton says. “It’s not just a stamp we put on the station. It’s about what our consumers want to see and what they want to know, and the choices we make in terms of what we cover and how we tell those stories.”

An example of the On Your Side mentality is WATE’s traffic coverage. The station not only announces when there is an accident but also tells its listeners how to get around the mishap and when it’s cleared, Littleton says. “We try to approach every story that way, and make it clear to our customers how that piece of information benefits them.”

The station has expanded its weekend-morning news to four hours. Midway through September, its 6 p.m. newscast was up 50% in share compared to last September, according to Littleton. While there have been some talent changes and a new set, Littleton says the biggest change is the focus on the brand’s message. “The energy level is so much higher,” he says. “It’s fun to be part of building something great.”

WVLT’s brand is associated with Tennessee Volunteers sports, as the Gray-owned CBS affiliate has been the Knoxville area’s exclusive home of all Vol Network programing for years.

“We’re really working on getting the interactive opportunities between what’s on air and what’s on digital,” says Chris Baker, executive VP and general manager. “We’re merging those as much as we can.”

During its Sunday-morning college football show, The Extra Point, in conjunction with Vol Network, reporters read viewer tweets. WVLT also added a feature called #YourVoice. The segment, part of new news director Tony Bernhardt Jr.’s digital push, airs daily at 4 p.m. and includes an onscreen Twitter feed showing questions about a particular topic of interest from the station.

WVLT, which has procured new systems for weather and traffic from Gray, is the only station in market with an airplane. From the air, WVLT also covers breaking news and accidents, such as a chemical spill several months back. With video from the plane, the station was able to show viewers specifically where the affected areas were.

“It’s an advantage we enjoy there,” Baker says. “It’s a resource in the market.”


IN KNOXVILLE, TENN., people go as football goes. The fall is a busy time for the stations in DMA No. 61, not only for the University of Tennessee Volunteers but also for the high school football teams of eastern Tennessee.

“The fourth quarter’s our time of the year,” says Chris Baker, WVLT executive VP and general manager. “This is when we really shine, during sports season.”

The Gray TV-owned CBS affiliate airs “Rivalry Thursday” high school games on its MyVLT digital channel and, once a year, airs a big game on the main station.

Market leader WBIR, likewise, televises Friday-night football games on its 10.2 Me-TV digital channel. The Tegna-owned NBC affiliate is using a new high-def production truck.

Meanwhile, WTNZ is all about scores. “We like to plant our flag in the sand,” says Kelvin Mize, VP and general manager. “We consider ourselves first with high school football scores.”

The Raycom-owned Fox affiliate aired its high school football preview in July each night during its 10 p.m. news. It featured every school in the market and analyzed and detailed the outlook for the teams’ season and coaching and player changes.