Market Eye: Capital Improvements

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The central Pennsylvania mouthful of a market, Harrisburg-Lebanon- Lancaster-York, is getting significant infusions of resources, both in terms of personnel and equipment. Two stations, leader WGAL and recently sold WHP, had general managers from outside the region take over in December. The first GM is mindful of not screwing up WGAL’s sterling legacy. The second has some money to spend. “The station was starved for investment,” says Arthur Hasson, WHP general manager. “We’re in the game, and we’re anxious to compete on every level in this market.”

Sinclair obtained WHP, a CBS affiliate, in its $412.5 million acquisition last year of six Newport Television stations. The new owners brought in Hasson, a firsttime GM with a background in social media and at Universal Television. He is spending on equipment, talent, research and sales personnel.

It will take years of doing things right to chip away at WGAL. John Humphries succeeded the retiring Paul Quinn atop the Hearst TV station. Humphries is observing, leaving alone the things that work well and challenging his colleagues to rethink “automatic renewals”— things the station does because, well, it’s been doing them for decades.

Coming from the Carolinas’ Greenville-Spartanburg- Asheville-Anderson DMA, Humphries knows the key to winning vast, multi-hyphenated markets. “You run the risk of being defined by the geography of your town of license,” he says. “It’s our goal to not just be the Lancaster station.”

NBC affiliate WGAL has bureaus in the Harrisburg state capital and in York and reporters throughout the DMA. It is extending its reach with a series of “Skycams” showing hyperlocal traffic and weather in nine cities. The station also features about nine community town halls a year, where opinions are solicited from the public.

“We get great feedback, criticism, story ideas,” says Humphries of the gatherings. “There’s not a researcher in between. This is the real deal, and we base our coverage on what people say is important.”

WHP and WHTM, Allbritton’s ABC affiliate, are licensed to Harrisburg. Tribune’s Fox affiliate WPMT is licensed to York. Nexstar owns the CW station WLYH, which has a shared services arrangement with WHP. MyNetworkTV airs on WHP’s dot-two. NRJ owns independent WGCB. The region’s main subscription TV operator is Comcast.

WPMT is taking some bold steps in news. A year after expanding a 6:30-7 p.m. newscast to 6-7, the station debuted 4 a.m. news on Feb. 13—a big step from WPMT’s previous 5 a.m. kickoff. Predictably, some staffers were iffy on the concept. “I said, I know it’s more work—what do you need?” relates Bob Furlong, WPMT VP and general manager. “They said, ‘K-Cups.’”

Furlong sprung for the fancy Keurig machine, and WPMT’s newly caffeinated charges were on board. “It’s nice, strategically, for us to be on before everyone else is locally in the market,” says Furlong, who notes local residents’ longer commutes to Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia, as a factor in the decision.

WHTM is not planning a 4 a.m. move, but it does have an opening at 12:30 p.m., with syndication staple Judge Joe departing. The station starts live at 4:30 a.m. and features 5½ hours of news per day. Joseph Lewin, president and GM, evokes the enviable chemistry on Good Morning America when describing the talent interaction on the ABC affiliate. “We have personality—the anchors really like each other, and it shows on the air,” Lewin says. “They know the market and they like the market.”

The Harrisburg-Lancaster stations are making interesting use of their subchannels. WHTM has AccuWeather on one and RTV’s retro hits on another, and local games that include high school sports and Hershey Bears hockey. WGAL has an intriguing local play at 10 p.m.

The Susquehanna River cuts through the heart of the market, where state government, health care and the Hershey candy conglomerate are primary employers. The local economy is wheezing, with high unemployment continuing to drag down spending. BIA/Kelsey ranks the No. 43 DMA at only No. 51 in terms of revenue.

The stations are coming up with interesting ways to save, and redistribute, money. Furlong mentions a switch from paper scripts to iPads on the set to save paper, and new LED lighting that will whack $22,000 off the electric bill annually. A station wagon has been tricked out to be a live truck transmitting off a cellular network. “We can drive into an area of bad weather and see the live driving conditions,” Furlong says. “It’s as live as you can get.”

WGAL crushed the competition in the February sweeps. Despite a distant third-place finish in primetime (which WHP won), WGAL bounced back with a 6.7 household rating/25 share at 11 p.m.—more than double WHTM’s runner-up 3.2/12. WGAL thrives on a much larger stage, too; Humphries says it had the highest news share among top 50 markets in February at 6 a.m. (a whopping 38), noon, 6 p.m. and 11 p.m.

Humphries refers to WGAL as a “special treasure” in the marketplace. “It’s my goal to continue that,” he says, “and be the highly valued community partner that we are.”

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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.