Market Eye: High-Flying Huntsville

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The Huntsville-Decatur-Florence market was brutalized by the tornadoes that rampaged through Alabama in 2011. In the hardest-hit precincts, the damage is still being cleaned up. “We have lots of areas that are not completely back to normal,” says Stan Pylant, president and general manager at WHNT. “But it’s getting better. It’s coming back.”

The catastrophic weather led to boosts in the market’s news scene. After going live at 6:30 each evening during the storm’s aftermath, WHNT officially made the newscast part of its schedule a few months later. “It’s been a good thing for us—numbers are up over [predecessor Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,]” says Pylant. “And it’s very sellable, because it’s news.”

It is an intense news battle in DMA No. 79. BIA/Kelsey had Raycom’s WAFF ahead by several revenue percentage points in recent years, until Local TV’s WHNT leapfrogged the NBC affiliate in 2011. WHNT, a CBS station, booked an estimated $16.13 million in 2011, reports BIA/Kelsey, ahead of WAFF’s $14.68 million.

Calkins Media owns ABC affiliate WAAY. Grant Communications owns Fox affiliate WZDX, which airs MyNetworkTV and Me-TV on its subchannels. Lockwood Broadcasting has CW station WHDF. WAAY produces the 9 p.m. news for WZDX. “We’re pleased with the results so far,” says Charlene Brueggeman, WZDZ assistant general manager.

Charter is the dominant subscription TV operator in Huntsville-Decatur-Florence, while Comcast and Knology are players as well. The Huntsville Times shifted from daily delivery to three days a week in early October.

WAAY was first in the market with 4:30 a.m. news last year, moving its launch from a Monday to the previous Friday to pip the competition by a few days. WHNT is keen to expand news whenever possible. This fall, it stretched its 6 p.m. Saturday news to an hour, on top of 2½ hours on Saturday mornings and 1½ hours on Sunday mornings.

The station also has the rare newscast that is unique to its dot-two channel. It debuted in February 2010 (Station to Station, Feb. 8, 2010), and Pylant says the program averages a 1 household rating. “We’re really happy with the results,” he says.

“It’s an option for people who want their news earlier.” It’s also an option for advertisers who may not have the budget for the main channel. The newscast shares “WHNT2” with Antenna TV.

The Huntsville DMA moved up one spot in the newest Nielsen market rankings. Various aerospace outfits are based in the market, including NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. With much of the work tied to government contracts, all eyes are on what happens regarding budget cuts in Washington. “It could have a big impact on our economy,” says Pylant.

WHNT won the total-day household ratings contest in the May, sweeps, and took primetime easily. WAFF won 6 a.m. news in households, while WHNT took adults 25-54. WAFF claimed early evening and late news, its 11.0 rating/24 share at 10 p.m. topping WHNT’s 10.2/22. The two were deadlocked in 10 p.m.’s 25-54 race.

WAAY is trying some bold things in news to compete with the big boys. Art Lanham, vice president and GM, speaks of a successful morning transformation, and plans a similar “evaluation” of the station’s other newscasts. “We’re trying to find more ways to be stronger and better serve the community,” he says.

WAAY recently signed on with Rentrak.

WHNT keeps its news juggernaut humming with a full-blown multimedia journalist (MMJ) strategy. “For our station, it’s really about news—local news,” says Pylant. “We continue to look at ways to grow our local news.”

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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.