Market Eye: Class of the Commonwealth

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WDBJ Roanoke has ruled the local TV news races for about a halfcentury, but its rivals suggest the contest is tightening. A pair of key WDBJ anchors are moving on—up-and-coming 11 p.m. host Natasha Ryan left for KING Seattle in January, while Keith Humphry, who has anchored the 6 p.m. news for 31 years, retires in May. News director Amy Morris recently departed, too.

The Schurz-owned CBS affiliate has long prided itself on continuity; Jeffrey Marks, president/ general manager, is just the fourth GM at the station. He says WDBJ’s deep bench will serve it well amidst the upheaval. “There’s a real sense of WDBJ belonging to the community and serving the community,” Marks says. “Our key people in news have been homegrown over the years. They know the 26 counties we serve and take seriously the notion of ‘We are your hometown station.’”

As befits a hyphenated market, DMA No. 66 has a real split down the middle. WDBJ, Fox affiliate WFXR and NBC outlet WSLS are based on the Roanoke side, while ABC affiliate WSET is over in Lynchburg. Owned by Allbritton, WSET celebrates its roots—a contrast to its previous self-image. “We know what we are and are not ashamed of it,” says Randy Smith, president and general manager. “For many years, the station tried to hide that it was in Lynchburg and tried to be another Roanoke station. We need to be proud to be from Lynchburg.”

Smith says that view has helped WSET grow in the market. Yet WDBJ remains a force, winning all the major household races in the February sweeps, its 6.3 rating/21 share in late news ahead of WSET’s 4.7/15.7. (WFXR’s 10 p.m. news, produced by WSLS, posted a 5/10.2.) WSET is news runner-up in most household ratings races, and the station continues to make strong gains among viewers 25-54.

Grant Communications has a duopoly with Fox-CW combo WFXR-WWCW. Millard Younts owns indie WDRL. WDBJ also airs MyNetworkTV’s primetime on its multicast channel, and has a 10 p.m. weekday news that is unique to the .2. Media General owns NBC affiliate WSLS, which has a new general manager— Leesa Wilcher recently took over for Warren Fiihr, who joined Comcast in Sacramento, Calif. Comcast is the major cable operator, but satellite TV is huge in Roanoke-Lynchburg because of terrain issues in the market. Fully 46% of the TV homes are satellite subscribers, Marks notes, compared to 41% cable homes. “A significant part of the market is not cabled,” he says.

A Nielsen diary market, Roanoke-Lynchburg has an older, conservative population. It is home to several colleges, including Virginia Tech and Roanoke College. Other top industries include manufacturing of nuclear power facilities.

Stations are scrambling to take down WDBJ. WFXR is posting huge American Idol numbers, and sister WWCW features The Daily Buzz at 7 a.m. “We like the broad demographic appeal of our two stations,” says Ralph Claussen, general sales manager.

WSET has Oprah Winfrey in a unique 5 p.m. slot, which will shift to local news on Sept. 12. Smith has also targeted that date for a local high-definition launch. (WDBJ and WSLS already offer HD.) “We’ll have new faces, new graphics, new music,” Smith says.

But dethroning WDBJ—where anchor Jean Jadhon, with 18½ years at the station, is considered “fairly new” by her GM—won’t happen anytime soon. “We’ve got a mix of people who are pretty new, and a lot who’ve been here a long time,” Marks says. “They really understand the folks in this market.”

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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.