Market Eye: Finding Success in Succession

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Change is an ongoing theme in Atlanta. Several new faces sit in the general manager offices: John Deushane, formerly the COO at Granite Broadcasting, took over Gannett’s WXIA in June; Bill Schneider was named general manager at Fox O&O WAGA in August; and Tom Canedo started at CBS-owned CW outlet WUPA in December.

Suddenly, Kirk Black, who took over Meredith’s WGCL in August 2009, is one of the senior GMs in DMA No. 8.

Bill Hoffman, the top dog at WSB, has been running the Cox powerhouse for years. The ABC affiliate is in what Hoffman calls “Phase 2” of a major succession plan; after Zach Klein took over sports, WSB went to work on increasing co-anchor Justin Farmer’s on-air presence, with John Pruitt—a 40-year veteran of Atlanta television—stepping down in December.

Hoffman says viewers have warmed to Farmer alongside veteran Monica Pearson. “The ratings look good, the performance looks good,” Hoffman says. “The audience seems to accept him.”

WSB is a monster. It won total-day household ratings in February, along with 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and morning news, while its 6.2 household rating/12 share at 11 p.m. bested WAGA’s 3.6/7. WAGA posted a 6.4/10 with its 10 p.m. newscast and easily won primetime.

While most every GM in the country talks about the extraordinary competition in their market, Atlanta features particularly strong owners and an innovative bunch of general managers. “It’s a wonderful place to be a broadcaster,” Hoffman says. “We go against well-established and smart broadcasters every day.”

WSB and WAGA have long been well ahead of the pack. WAGA has a new face and new strategy in the mornings, with Gurvir Dhindsa coming from Washington sister WTTG and a harder news focus. “Viewers respond more to what goes on in news than what goes on in the entertainment world,” Schneider says.

WGCL and WXIA are making their plays. WGCL has undergone a drastic transformation since Black took over. It’s a hub for several Meredith stations’ functions, such as traffic, master control and finance. Steve Schwaid, news director, is head of digital content for the group and tests initiatives in Atlanta before they’re rolled out groupwide.

On March 28, WGCL took over the management of Turner’s WPCH, known as Peachtree TV. Black says the younger demos of “Peach” match up well with WGCL’s more mature viewers. “It’s another piece of the puzzle as we make our Atlanta footprint bigger and better and more substantial,” he says.

WXIA, which has an ad partnership with Yahoo, has worked hard to extend its multiplatform reach. Deushane refers to the “networks of 11 Alive,” including Gannett Web staples, and; 54 hyperlocal community sites powered by DataSphere; and of course an NBC affiliate and the MyNetworkTV affiliate WATL.

“We’re a lot more than just an NBC station,” he says. “We have to be platform-ubiquitous.”

WXIA is pushing a big-time advocacy brand in its news, and a help desk is designed to assist viewers with sorting out everyday quandaries related to topics such as utilities or weather (Atlanta essentially shut down for close to a week after a snowstorm in January). Ellen Crooke, news director, was named Gannett’s Innovator of the Year in 2010, no minor distinction for a company that has 23 TV stations and hundreds of newspapers, and WXIA’s journalists are encouraged to not only spotlight problems in the community, but help solve them too. “If we can make something better, we try to do that,” Deushane says. “Most journalists shy away from that, but we shy away from those journalists.”

WXIA and WAGA pair up on a helicopter and a video share on planned community events. WGCL had been part of the content co-op launch in 2009, but stepped out of the arrangement after the trial phase. WSB has never taken part. “We respect the economics of it, but we really enjoy the independence of going it alone,” Hoffman says.

WUPA goes local with a new Atlanta. site and The Frank and Wanda Show, featuring a pair of popular radio personalities, each night at 10. Atlanta’s young and diverse population is a right fit for WUPA, Canedo says: “It’s helped us be one of the top CW affi liates in the country.”

Besides Cox, Atlanta is home to the broadcaster Gray Television, along with Time Warner’s Turner division and, of course, CNN. The merged AT&T and T-Mobile will be based in Atlanta, a giant get for the market. Comcast is the main cable operator, and a battle is underway among the various satellite and telco operators for the pay-TV business.

Another battle will happen at 4 p.m. in September, when WSB swaps out Oprah Winfrey for local news, and WAGA counters with Dr. Oz.

“It will be an interesting time period,” Schneider says, “as viewers sort through a new array of choices.”

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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.