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Market Eye: A Choice Address in Memphis

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After a trying spring that involved tornadoes and flooding, Memphis got a blast of positivity when President Obama turned up May 16 to salute the seniors at Booker T. Washington High School. The president selected the students’ video, explaining why they deserved to have him speak at their commencement ceremony.

The visit gave residents a respite from the disasters and feuding between the city and county over stewardship of Memphis’ public schools. “It was something that Memphis really needed,” says John Koski, VP/general manager at WHBQ. “Black and white, everyone rallied around the school.”

It’s been a particularly lively time in Memphis, with some political corruption sprinkled in with the weather troubles and presidential visit. “It’s one of the biggest news periods in recent memory,” says Ronald Walter, president/GM at WREG.

The ratings battle between Local TV’s WREG, a CBS affiliate, and Raycom’s WMC, affiliated with NBC, is hot as a July afternoon on Beale Street. WREG posted a 4.2 rating/ 8.6 share in total day household ratings in the May sweeps, while WMC had a 4.1/8.3. WREG and WMC were deadlocked at 10.3/15 in late news. WREG won morning news and WMC won early evenings. WREG and Fox-owned WHBQ finished in a virtual tie in primetime.

“We’re two strong competitors, and I think we respect each other,” says Lee Meredith, VP/ GM at WMC. “We’ll keep knocking heads.”

DMA No. 48 brought in $97.3 million in revenue in 2010, according to BIA/Kelsey. WREG was tops with $29.5 million, ahead of WMC’s $24.9 million. Rounding out Memphis’ broadcast stations are Newport TV’s ABC affiliate WPTY and CW outlet WLMT. Rene LaSpina, VP/GM, says Newport has spent big since acquiring the stations from Clear Channel. “We’re thrilled that they’ve invested so much,” LaSpina says. “We needed it.”

Comcast is the market’s major cable operator. Memphis represents home base for Fed Ex and AutoZone, while a new Electrolux plant will bring an estimated 3,000 jobs to the region. The Memphis in May gala recently concluded, including the Beale Street Music Festival and a giant barbecue. The NBA’s Grizzlies won a postseason series for the first time— giving locals another reason to celebrate.

Stations are working hard to outdo each other. WHBQ is bullish on a 10 p.m. news that debuted in August, in place of The Office. Ernie Freeman helms Fox 13 News, which Koski describes as “different” and “edgy.” Political discourse has become a trademark of the 10 p.m. show. “Politicians have been streaming into the studio,” says Koski. “Our late news has become a destination.”

WMC will replace Oprah Winfrey with a 4 p.m. news. “It’s an important time period and we want to have a really good show,” says Meredith. “Oprah was a good show, so the bar is pretty high.”

WREG touts strong weather coverage as a cornerstone. “We provide viewers with information that’s helpful to them as they make decisions,” says Walter. “The weather here is so changeable—it can be very, very dramatic. May was no exception.”

Showing just how much a cultural institution American Idol is, WREG—the CBS affiliate—gives the Fox performance show its own page on

Booker T. Washington High is an institution as well. Memphians will hold onto President Obama’s oratory for some time. The president saluted the grads for succeeding amidst the challenges of the inner city. “We are here today,” he said, “because every single one of you stood tall and said, ‘Yes, we can.’”

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