Market Eye: Boomtown on the Border

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Mexico figures into all aspects of life in the booming Texas border market of Harlingen-Weslaco-Brownsville-McAllen. The TV households are around 85% Hispanic, say station general managers, second only to Laredo for highest in the U.S. Mexicans are a major factor in the retail landscape, and the Spanish-language television offerings are vast.

Yet news south of the border tends to stay there. “We don’t allow our news people to go to Mexico,” says Bill Jorn, general manager at NBC affiliate KVEO. “It’s just too dangerous.”

ABC affi liate KRGV, the market’s news leader, has a similar, if slightly less guarded, philosophy about covering news across the border. Journalists are targeted, says John Kittleman, KRGV GM. “Our policy is, no crossing the border without management’s approval,” he says. “We’ll go there in a very rare controlled situation.”

KRGV had a barn burner of a sweeps entry in November 2011, its month-long “Battle for the Border” investigative series shining the spotlight on how Mexican drug crime affects the U.S. border region. Viewers appreciated that KRGV took risks to expose truths. “We feel blessed that we have men and women at KRGV who have bravely addressed this extremely unsettling issue,” reads a letter from a husband and wife.

The Texas side of the border is mostly safe and prosperous. TV insiders here say stringent Department of Homeland Security measures have kept undesirables out, while letting in what one GM calls an “upper scale” of Mexican consumer.

The market moved from No. 87 to 86 in the most recent Nielsen DMA rankings, and that’s up from No. 110 some 15 years ago, say the GMs. “The market acts larger than it is—it’s a growth market for sure,” says Tom Keeler, president and CEO at KGBT. “With improvements to infrastructure, [the market is] building for continued growth, 10 and 20 years out.”

The Spanish-language TV players are huge. Entravision owns Univision outlet KNVO and TeleFutura-aligned KVTF, as well as Fox affiliate XRIO and a new Mundo Fox station. KVEO airs Estrella TV on its digital tier. Grupo Televisa owns XERV; viewers here have a chance to see original novelas on XERV before they debut on Univision. Sunbelt Multimedia has Telemundo affiliate KTLM.

The Manship family has owned KRGV for decades. Kittleman mentions the station’s “longterm commitment to news,” in the form of a market-tops 6½ hours per day, as key to its success. He credits the Manships for their unwavering backing. “We’ve been owned by the same family for 50 years, and that allows us to have continuity in personnel and philosophy,” he says. “We’re blessed to have a family behind us that believes in journalism and broadcasting.”

Barrington owns CBS affiliate KGBT. Com- Corp has NBC outlet KVEO. Time Warner Cable is the dominant subscription TV operator.

KRGV, airing in full HD, won total-day household ratings in the May sweeps, ahead of KNVO. KRGV also took the morning, early evening and late news contests, the latter with a 14.8 household rating/26 share, though the Univision station posted better adults 25-54 numbers at 10 p.m. XERV won primetime.

KRGV’s rivals are stepping up their news presence. KGBT has reformatted its morning news, scrapping a wheel format for a more conversational vibe on set. “We are repositioning ourselves in the market,” says Keeler. “If we can be successful there, it will start off our whole day.”

KVEO has 5 and 10 p.m. news, with local cutins in the morning. Jorn would like to have full morning newscasts, and is thinking about weekends, along with local content on Estrella.

KVEO has a unique news setup, with anchors in El Paso-800 miles and a different time zone away. "We have a full blown news department here-it just so happens our anchors are out of El Paso," says Jorn. "Everything is done here, but instead of sending it to the next room, we send it to El Paso.

KRGV, its call letters referring to Rio Grande Valley, added a 4 p.m. news upon Oprah's departure, and expanded its 6 p.m. news to an hour. It's got a tough act to follow in November, after last year's sweeps special. "We're definitely working on some things," says Kittleman. "Everybody's expected to bring ideas to the table."

With a lively batch of stations on both sides of the border, the broadcast TV offerings are aplenty in Harlingen-Weslaco-Brownsville-McAllen. "There are probably more over-the-air stations in this market than maybe anywhere in the U.S.," says Jorn. "You damn near don't need cable or satellite, unless you're a TV junkie."

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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.