Market Eye: Going Indie in Indiana

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Few markets have seen changes to their TV landscape of late the way Evansville, Ind., has. The wheels went into motion in May, when Fox announced it was partnering with ComCorp’s WEVV to launch Fox on the CBS affiliate’s subchannel July 1, leaving Nexstar’s WTVW without an affiliation.

Then in late June, WTVW revealed it was going fully independent on July 1 as Local 7, the name “reflecting our commitment to quality programming and advertising solutions,” according to Mike Smith, the station’s VP/general manager.

Then things got weirder. On Aug. 8, Nexstar announced its intention to acquire ABC affiliate WEHT for $18.5 million from Gilmore Broadcasting, while divesting WTVW to Mission Broadcasting, which Nexstar has a management relationship with.

Got all that straight? If not, you may not be alone. Evansville television insiders say the July sweeps saw a steep ratings drop for Fox at its new home, compared to being a primary channel the previous summer. But Tim Black, WEVV general manager, says viewers are finding “Fox44” following an intense marketing campaign on-air, outdoors, on radio and, to a lesser degree, in print. “The transition was smooth as can be for viewers,” Black says. “We were pleasantly surprised to see the numbers we did get. We anticipate nothing but increases in November.”

WFIE and WEHT split the total-day household ratings crown in last May’s sweeps. WEHT and WTVW were virtually tied for primetime honors, while WFIE won morning, early evening and late news—the latter with a 10 rating/ 21 share, ahead of WEHT’s 8/18.

WFIE led the pack with $12 million in revenue last year, according to BIA/Kelsey, ahead of WEHT’s $7.5 million and WTVW’s $7.3 million.

Amidst all the shaking up, WFIE has stayed strong—and it may get stronger. Raycom’s NBC affiliate is a consistent place for viewers in DMA No. 104 to turn for news, information and entertainment. “I think it’s an advantage for us until all the dust settles,” says Nick Ulmer, WFIE VP/general manager. “There seems to be some confusion with advertisers about what happened.”

WEVV’s subchannel airs Fox from 7 to 9 p.m. and MyNetworkTV from 9 to 11. Fox44 does not air local news. Rivals say Dish Network does not currently carry the channel, meaning some 16% of the market does not receive Fox44. [Editor's Note: WEVV worked out a carriage deal for Fox44 with Dish after presstime.]

But Black says a CBS-Fox duopoly is ideal, reaching both sides of the demographic scale and essentially hogging the football this time of year. “For sports in general, CBS-Fox is pretty much the place to be,” he says.

It appears certain that WEHT and WTVW will move into the same building, but management at both stations is not confirming. WEHT management referred calls to Nexstar co-COO Tim Busch, who did not call back. The Evansville Courier & Press reported that Busch and Nexstar President/CEO Perry Sook were in town in late August to work out moving both staffs into WEHT’s digs. The paper also said staffers are reapplying for their positions.

WTVW’s new approach includes a fourth hour of morning news, an expansion to its Saturday 6 p.m. program, and the debut of a Sunday 6 p.m. newscast. The station’s new primetime includes Inside Edition, The Insider and a double-run of Big Bang Theory.

WEHT shows “News 25 Sports Channel” on its .2, a mix of Kentucky school sports network Wazoo Sports and local Evansville games. The channel celebrated its first anniversary in August.

WFIE introduced a 4 p.m. newscast last September, taking the place of Oprah Winfrey. The station’s call letters stand for “We’re First In Evansville,” and it’s a mission statement: Ulmer, who succeeded Debbie Bush atop the station in June 2010 after 27 years at WAVE Louisville, says the station was first on the air back in 1953, first with color broadcasts and, most recently, fi rst with local HD: WFIE flipped the switch last July. “As corny as it sounds, we continue the tradition of being first in everything,” Ulmer says. “We invest a lot of time, talent and money to make sure we’re delivering superior newscasts, and we think it shows.”

The region is known as the Tri-State; around half of the viewership lives in southwestern Indiana, approximately 41% is in Kentucky, and some 7% is in Illinois. Insight is the primary subscription TV operator, followed by Wow!

BIA ranked Evansville a lagging No. 113 in terms of revenue last year. Appliance giant Whirlpool shuttered a manufacturing facility in 2010 (“that hurt,” says Ulmer), but general managers say business is picking up. Alcoa and Berry Plastics are significant employers, and Toyota manufactures its Sequoia, Sienna and Highlander models in the market. “Things are relatively good, compared to other parts of the country,” says Black.

Residents are eagerly awaiting the grand opening of the Ford Center arena; Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band are scheduled to rock opening night Nov. 9. “We need to develop the downtown area, and hopefully the arena is a shot in the arm,” says Ulmer.

The various affiliation switches may end up being a shot in the arm to Evansville television, but WFIE is not relinquishing its stronghold anytime soon. “The people who were here before me deserve a lot of credit,” says Ulmer. “My challenge is to make sure we don’t lose ground.”

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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.