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Market Eye: Conquering theGreat Virginia Divide | @BCMikeMalone

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Roanoke -Lynchburg, Va., is, by multiple accounts, a somewhat staid, static market. But its TV stations are going through some dramatic changes. WSET is being sold to Sinclair as part of the Allbritton deal. Grant Communications’ duopoly is reportedly for sale. WSLS is now part of a growing pure-play broadcaster since Media General sold its newspapers and merged with Young Broadcasting.

The only station with relative quiet under its roof is the market leader, Schurz-owned WDBJ. “We are the eye of stability in a hurricane of change,” says Jeffrey Marks, president/ GM. “We are tickled to death to be associated with a family-owned, privately held, well-run company that has no interest in selling.”

There are two distinct submarkets in DMA No. 68. Roanoke and Lynchburg are about an hour’s drive from each other. “Lynchburg is Lynchburg, Roanoke is Roanoke,” says Leesa Wilcher, WSLS VP and general manager.

ABC affiliate WSET stands alone in Lynchburg and tailors its broadcasts to the market’s smaller city. “We own the east and [WDBJ] owns the west,” says Randy Smith, WSET president/GM. “We kinda like it that way.”

CBS affiliate WDBJ dominates. It put up a 4.1 household rating/17.1 share in total-day ratings in the May sweeps, ahead of WSET’s 2.4/10.5. WDBJ won primetime easily, grabbed the morning and early-evening news titles and posted a 6.8/24.7 at 11 p.m., besting WSET’s 3.8/14. BIA/Kelsey estimates WDBJ booked $26.8 million in revenue last year, ahead of NBC affiliate WSLS’ $21.1 million.

The 26-county DMA is a big one to cover, and viewers say WDBJ, with four bureaus, does it best. “We’re out every day trying to cover it all,” says Marks. “I’d like to think we get to more places than the competition.”

Kelly Zuber, WDBJ director of digital media, was named news director in July, replacing Dan Dennison, who has since left the station. Marks credits Dennison’s work running the newsroom and says Zuber, given her digital chops, “was ideally suited to be news director.”

Grant owns Fox affiliate WFXR and CW outlet WWCW. Brian Argabright, station manager, says talk of the stations being for sale is just rumor. “As far as I know, it’s business as usual,” he says.

Satellite TV has more than half of the pay- TV market share in Roanoke-Lynchburg, while Comcast is the top cable operator.

The stations are trotting out new syndicated shows for fall. WFXR-WWCW has Modern Family and Arsenio Hall. WSET has Queen Latifah and WSLS debuts Bethenny, which Wilcher says the station “looks to shake it up a bit” with.

John Carlin, WSLS lead anchor from 1987- 2008, came out of retirement in July to anchor its news.

Not shaking things up much is WDBJ. Andy Griffith still airs at 5:30 p.m., Friday Football Extra is in its 30th year and the station has a healthy lead in all key categories. “As long as we keep the distance between us and the competition,” says Marks, “we’ll have the resources to do a lot of the extra work we do.”

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.