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Market Eye: 'Beach' Blanket Bingo

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There’s an extraordinary number of moving parts in the West Palm Beach, Fla., TV scene. Almost exactly a year ago, Scripps-owned WPTV and Raycom’s WFLX took their relationship several steps further, from a news producing arrangement to a shared services agreement, with market leader WPTV handling everything but sales for Fox affiliate WFLX, and the remaining staffers moving into WPTV’s digs.

On May 29, Michael Garber, formerly news director at WTLV Jacksonville, took over as news director of the combined operation after Jeff Brogan’s move to Scripps’ corporate office.

Sinclair’s recent acquisition of the local Freedom Broadcasting and Four Points stations gives the group extraordinary reach in DMA No. 38 with robust CBS affiliate WPEC, CW outlet WTVX, MyNetworkTV-aligned WTCN and an Azteca America channel as well. Sinclair has not revealed its plans for West Palm yet, and its local management did not comment.

Steve Wasserman, WPTV VP and general manager, called the enhanced partnership with WFLX “a huge event for us,” with the newsroom taking on an additional 17½ hours of news a week, including a 4 p.m. broadcast on WFLX that debuted last fall. “It’s worked out very well,” Wasserman says. “We’re very separated in sales, and very unified with news.”

WFLX has its own general manager—veteran general sales manager John Heislman succeeded the retired John Spinola last June. WFLX began airing commercials in HD upon relocating. “It was a natural transition,” says Heislman. “I can’t think of any hiccups—it’s all good.”

For his part, Wasserman was recently given oversight of Scripps stations in Phoenix, Tampa and the corporate home market of Cincinnati. He is looking to hire a station manager at WPTV. (Speaking of Scripps corporate, Brian Lawlor, the group’s senior VP, used to run WPTV.)

WPTV was its usual monster in the February sweeps, winning the news races and total day household ratings, including 11 p.m. with a 6.7 household rating/12.6 share, ahead of WPEC’s 5.1/9.7. The adults 25-54 race at 11 was much closer. WPEC won primetime in February, as CBS affiliates typically do, but WPTV was a respectable second—rare for an NBC affiliate.

WPTV looked strong again in the May sweeps, closing the gap in primetime and extending its advantage in key news races at the midpoint of the ratings book.

Wasserman says the shared services agreement, besides kicking extra revenue to WPTV, has extended the station’s news brand in West Palm Beach. WPTV thrives on Scripps’ commitment to rock-solid journalism, he adds, especially given the deep tenure of its anchor crew, and a knack for minting new talent. “We’ve got a real consistent brand based on quality news coverage,” says Wasserman. “We also have several key long-term players, while also recruiting up-and-comers with the same quality level, or the potential to have that same level.”

Other stations in West Palm include Hearst Television ABC affiliate WPBF, which airs Estrella TV on its multicast tier and grabbed the syndicated Dr. Oz from WPTV last year. WPBF adds Katie this fall and boasts a robust digital strategy, which includes a free hurricane app that had almost 200,000 downloads in 2011, according to Caroline Taplett, president and general manager. "It took the market by storm, no pun intended," she says. "It completely exceeded our expectations."

Comcast is the major subscription TV operator. Gunter Marksteiner owns WHDT, an independent that swapped out RTV for weather news last fall, according to published reports. The station could not be reached for comment.

Real estate in southeast Florida remains soft. But tourism is robust, and visitors will increasingly include the presidential incumbent and hopeful in coming months. “We anticipate a pretty signi! cant political season,” says Wasserman, “Florida being the swing state that it is.”

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Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.