Market Eye: Clash of the Titans

Local TV's lead story this past year has been consolidation— the big guys getting bigger and the small guys either getting out of the business or fighting extra hard to stay in the race. Chattanooga, Tenn., offers a stark example of both sides of the equation. WTVC was acquired by Sinclair Broadcast Group in its Freedom Broadcasting acquisition in 2012, and the station has benefited from Sinclair’s breadth and wealth: A new set, HD production and the undoing of a hiring freeze.

WRCB, meanwhile, is part of tiny Sarkes Tarzian, whose other TV station is KTVN Reno (Nev.). Tom Tolar, WRCB president and general manager, cops to “some concern” about other broadcasters getting larger but says the NBC affiliate remains in a favorable spot. “The fact that we have had a very strong position gives us a good relationship with syndicators and the network,” Tolar says.

Both stations are making significant additions to their news lineups. WRCB debuted a 7-8 a.m. Saturday-Sunday newscast a few months back and moved it up to 6 a.m. in mid-February. WTVC, meanwhile, on March 1 launched 6-7 a.m. and 8-9 a.m. weekend news, sandwiched around Good Morning America. “We waited to do that until we could do it right,” says Mike Costa, general manager.

Chalk that one up to Sinclair’s arrival in Chattanooga. Costa admits to a bit of a cultural transition to the new owner, but Sinclair imperatives, such as a 20% increase in head count, go far to smooth the process. “They’ve invested a ton in the station,” he says, “especially after what we call the nuclear winter during the [former owner] Freedom years.”

While Sinclair has agreed to acquire New Age Media as part of its buying spree of the past few years, that deal does not include New Age’s stations in Chattanooga: Fox affiliate WDSI and CW outlet WFLI. WTVC produces newscasts for WDSI.

Other Chattanooga owners include Morris Multimedia, which has CBS affiliate WDEF. With the tagline “Local, Quick & To the Point,” WDEF added a 7 p.m. news and has the syndicated Dr. Oz at 5. Local sources say Oz took the place of news; WDEF executives did not return calls requesting comment.

Comcast is Chattanooga’s primary subscription TV operator, while Charter has a strong presence in DMA No. 87 too. Chattanooga is unique in that a utility company, EPB, offers the triple play, its fiber-optic connection providing the rare 1-gigabyte Internet connection. “They’ve taken a lot of subs from Comcast,” says Costa.

WRCB holds its own in the Nielsen diary market despite the lack of corporate scale. WTVC won total-day household ratings in last November’s sweeps, while it and WRCB tied in morning news household ratings. WTVC held the advantage at 6 p.m. and won 11 p.m. with a 4.5 rating/17 share, ahead of WRCB’s 4/15. WRCB won the adults 25-54 news race; WTVC and WDEF split primetime honors.

WTVC wins on the backs of extremely experienced staffers. Many managers have spent 30 to 35 years at the station, and a “no walls” approach has all departments working seamlessly, Costa says. “NewsChannel 9” has a “Depend On Us” brand that includes a promise about taking the extra steps to keep viewers informed. “Everyone in that newsroom lives it,” Costa adds.

Much of the discussion in Chattanooga these days centers around the local Volkswagen plant. News crews were busy reporting on a bruising mid-February debate, and vote, in which VW workers rejected UAW union representation. “It’s good to have that issue behind us,” says Tolar.

The economy is lukewarm, but Chattanooga residents enjoy mountains, lakes, a lively downtown and access to major metropolitan centers such as Atlanta and Nashville. “There’s a quality of life here that you can’t get in a lot of places,” says Costa. “It’s just a good place to be.”


Local TV reporters love Twitter; local TV executives not so much. But count Mike Costa, WTVC general manager, among those who actively use it. With the handle @JudeCostaNC9, he has more than 19,000 tweets and 2,200 followers, including Tom Petty and Barack Obama. Costa views Twitter as a “personal news feed” and a two-way discussion with users. “Viewers don’t want a monologue—they want a dialogue,” he says. “They want to interact. Twitter allows that.”

TV execs who are active on Twitter include Brian Lawlor, Scripps senior VP of TV, and Doug Franklin, Cox executive VP/CFO. But Costa may be the most active. As his profile says, “I’ve got an opinion, it is mine and mine alone.”

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.