Market Eye: Brrr-ight Future in Boomtown As Dakota Deck Gets Shuffled

As 2013 unfolded, no one in Minot-Bismarck-Dickinson (Williston), N.D., knew just how much heat the TV stations there would attract. That all changed in April when A.J. Clemente, on his first day as KFYR anchor, uttered some expletives into a hot mic, which resulted in the shortest career in TV anchor history.

Then in late November, Will Ferrell rolled into town, donning his Ron Burgundy persona to anchor the KXMB news. “It was the talk, not just of the town of Bismarck, but of the whole state,” says Tim Reiten, president of Reiten Television, parent of KXMB and KXMC Minot. “People really got a kick out of it.”

Ferrell’s camp had first reached out to KFYR, but the station, nervous about the FCC attention after Clemente’s gaffe, was not taking any chances. Dick Heidt, KFYR president and general manager, would not address the situation on the record.

KFYR and KXMB are fierce rivals in DMA No. 145; both have sister stations in the market’s main cities. KFYR sticks its stake in “enterprise news,” says Heidt, as “there’s not a lot of breaking news in North Dakota.”

There’s plenty of weather coverage, however, especially this time of year. A recent temperature of 28 degrees was described as “pretty subtropical, considering the December we’ve had,” by Gary Halloran, general manager at KNDX.

Oiling the Wheels of Progress

Bismarck is the state’s capital and, with close to 65,000 people, its second most populous city behind Fargo. The market’s growth is stunning—only one other Nielsen DMA jumped more places last year than Minot-Bismarck’s six. That’s a result of the Bakken Shale oil boom in western North Dakota. “They can’t get people here fast enough [to work],” says Reiten. “They can’t build houses fast enough for them.”

The local oil industry gives the news stations plenty to report. The population growth—the TV market went from 150,000 television homes last year to the current 158,730, according to Nielsen—has countered an exodus during bleak economic times in the 1980s and ’90s. North Dakota has been “the great exception to the Great Recession,” National Journal reported last month.

There’s also an extraordinary amount of ownership change. NBC affiliate KFYR is being acquired by Gray Television as part of its $335 million Hoak Media grab. Fox affiliate KNDX, owned by Prime Cities, is moving to Excalibur Media, which is closely aligned with Gray. Local GMs are taking the acquisitions in stride. “You always wonder what will happen, but I hear it’s a good company to work for,” says Heidt, who has spent 44 years in the market. “News is very important to Hoak, and I’m told it’s very important to Gray as well.”

CBS affiliate KXMC continues to be family-owned; Reiten’s father started the company, which is now owned by Tim and his siblings. Tim, who grew up in Minot, says they are “not actively looking to sell.”

KXMC has a joint sales agreement with KBMY, an ABC affiliate owned by Forum Communications. KBMY and KNDX do not air local news. Halloran says it “wouldn’t surprise me” if KNDX kicked off local news down the road; the station airs off-net hits The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men. The DMA’s primary subscription TV operator is Midcontinent.

Ahead by a Nose

KFYR, with help from syndication blue chips Dr. Oz, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, narrowly won the total-day household ratings race in the November sweeps. It and KXMC were virtually tied in primetime. KFYR won the 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. races, while KXMC’s 13 household rating/30 share in late news barely beat KFYR’s 12/28. The general managers feel their news operations punch above their weight in the Nielsen diary market. “Being a small market does not mean we don’t have the toys,” says Heidt.

A.J. Clemente’s name popped up in various 2013 TV highlights/lowlights specials, and on Dec. 27 he made a cameo on the NBC News primetime special What We Wasted Our Year On, alongside a lineup of Clemente impostors.

But the new year should be relatively quiet. There’s no word of an Anchorman 3, and the ownership situation should stabilize. Halloran calls the KNDX sale “kind of bittersweet,” but he’s looking forward to the added resources of Excalibur and Gray. “I think it will help strengthen the station’s position in the marketplace,” he says, “for years to come.”

Where There's A Will, There's A Ratings Boost

What would you do if Will Ferrell inquired about playing Ron Burgundy on your newscast? Some journalism pundits questioned the merits of using a station’s news for a movie promotion. “Funny? Sure. Appropriate? Not so sure,” wrote Dave Wilcox of the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Journalism Ethics, who said the move “probably does little to build credibility of TV anchors.”

Tim Reiten, president of KXMB parent Reiten Television, has no regrets about giving Ferrell 30 minutes on Nov. 30. “We’ve been doing the news for 50 years,” he says. “To take one Saturday 6 p.m. newscast and have fun with it is no big deal. It’s one fun night, and we’re right back to carrying regular news like we have the past 50 years.”

Gary Halloran, KNDX general manager, believes the entire market benefited from the Anchorman 2 promo stunt. “I was very glad to see the Reitens pull it off,” he says. “It was great publicity for their station—and for the market as a whole.”

Michael Malone

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.