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Market Eye: Coastal, But Not Coasting

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Mobile-Pensacola, with its rich military heritage, has always been a somewhat transient market. In the last few years, the general manager ranks at the stations have been as well. Mark Bunting, the former general sales manager at WKRG, was named general manager in January, following Joe Goleniowski’s retirement. The local TV ranks suffered a tragic blow when Bob Dunn, GM of WPMI, died at work Feb. 7. Newport Television VP of operations Michael DiPasquale, called Dunn “an absolute gentleman”; no replacement has been named. And at WALA-WFNA, Gary Yoder took over in May.

“I went from the junior general manager in the market to the senior one in a little over three years,” says Terry Cole, WEAR-WFGX general manager. “All of a sudden, I’m the old guy.”

WEAR has momentum. The ABC affiliate crept ahead of longtime market leader WALA, LIN Media’s Fox affiliate, in revenue in 2010, according to BIA/Kelsey. Cole says WEAR thrives on a “ton of news” approach, which includes an hour at 10 p.m., along with a stable talent crew.

Sinclair owns WEAR and WFGX, and the group has agreed to acquire NBC affiliate WPMI and independent WJTC from Newport. LIN has the market’s Fox and CW stations. Media General owns CBS affiliate WKRG. Cox is the main subscription TV operator.

WEAR took the late and early evening news household ratings races in the May sweeps; the station shared total-day ratings honors with WKRG. WALA won mornings and WKRG took primetime.

Some 60 miles separate Mobile, Ala., from Pensacola, Fla., with Mobile Bay and part of the Florida panhandle in between. WEAR is based in Pensacola; the other major stations are in Mobile. Florida is of course a key state during election season, while Alabama is fully red. “We’re fortunate to be on that side of the market” where lots of political money is in play, says Cole.

The economy is holding up fairly well. The local business community was delighted with the recent announcement that Airbus plans to build a manufacturing facility in Mobile. “The economy is good, but could always be better,” says Bunting. “Airbus will definitely help.”

Unemployment is a bit high, and crime is an issue too. Mobile-Pensacola lamented the news of ThyssenKrupp looking to sell its steel plant, but lively commerce out of its port keeps the economy steady. “Even during the worst part of the recession, the market seemed to enjoy good economic growth as a result of the port,” says Sharon Tinsley, president of the Alabama Broadcasters Association.

DMA No. 60 thrives on tourism; the famed Blue Angels performed at the Pensacola Air Show on July 14. Local TV chiefs say the beaches are clean following the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago. “It’s absolutely improved greatly,” says Cole. “People understand that the Gulf is back to normal.”

The stations are innovating. WALA is pushing its popular Fox10 iPad app. With Bunting’s 26 years at WKRG, and its well-tenured talent, he says there’s a family-like atmosphere at the station, which he believes resonates on air. WKRG has revamped its news strategy, with more investigative reporting and a higher story count. “It’s a different approach to news,” Bunting says. “We’re asking deeper questions.”

Cole says Sinclair’s Ring of Honor wrestling program is picking up fans. “I love it. I’d like to sell it better,” says Cole. “Every week, it clicks a little more.”

The general managers say the quality level runs high for local news in Mobile-Pensacola. “It’s a very competitive market,” says Cole. “The stations all do a nice job.”

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