Market Eye: Hunting for Hits

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The ratings race in Charleston–Huntington, W. Va., really isn’t much of one, as WSAZ continues to steamroll the competition. A much more interesting contest is for second place. Fox affiliate WVAH, CBS affiliate WOWK and ABCairing WCHS tied in total day household ratings in the February sweeps, well behind WSAZ. WVAH and WOWK shared the primetime lead, too.

Primetime is key to any station’s late news performance, but WSAZ, Gray TV’s NBC affiliate, has shown for years that late news doesn’t always need a strong prime to thrive. WSAZ’s 10 household rating/27 share more than tripled anyone else at 11 p.m. in February, despite the station coming in fourth in prime. Optimism last fall for NBC rookies such as The Event and Chase has not translated to ratings gold, or even ratings bronze.

Keeping a perennial powerhouse on top has its own challenges, but Don Ray, Gray’s regional vice president, says the spirit of competition keeps the WSAZ crew cranking. “It starts with having the best people,” Ray says. “No one wants to be the weakest link at the station.”

Ray also credits Gray for its substantial investment. The station is gearing up for a local HD launch this summer, and Atlanta-based Gray has spent big to upgrade facilities on both sides of the market.

WSAZ has a unique setup to its news, with a split screen showing anchors both in Charleston and Huntington at 6 and 11 p.m., and hyperlocal news (and weather) for both submarkets. The station can stick with one of the anchors when there’s major news on one side of the market, or show the Charleston feed in Charleston, and vice versa.

WSAZ’s format is said to have been the model for NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report, the network’s nightly newscast anchored by Chet Huntley in New York and David Brinkley in Washington in the 1950s and 1960s.

WOWK, which shares a newsroom with sister weekly The State Journal, is putting its money on weather. The West Virginia Media-owned station brands itself “First With Weather,” and it’s not kidding—each newscast leads off with a truncated weather report.

Weather demand is high in a market prone to flooding. “It’s not an Oklahoma type of market,” says John Fawcett, WOWK general manager. “But at any time, the weather here can impact what you’re doing.”

WOWK added 5 and 5:30 p.m. newscasts in October (in place of Dr. Phil), the first focusing on the Charleston metro area and the latter a statewide news with reports from the parent company’s four West Virginia stations.

WOWK also airs what Fawcett calls a “regional news,” covering West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, at 6 p.m., and the market’s lone 7 p.m. news. “It’s a time-convenience news for professional people who are home later,” he says.

With its rich coal-mining history, energy drives the economy in DMA No. 64. (Coal-mining in Charleston is a main plot point in Jonathan Franzen’s newest novel, Freedom.) Major chemical outfits Bayer and DuPont have plants in the area. Healthcare is a key industry as well, and all those wellness professionals have their hands full: English celeb chef Jamie Oliver visited Huntington for his 2010 healthy eating special on ABC, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, based on it being considered the unhealthiest city in the U.S.

Charleston–Huntington has been victim to tough economic times, but station GMs say things are picking up. With its proximity to Kentucky and Ohio, the market gets advertising cash from three state lotteries. “The market seems to be confident,” says Ray. “You don’t see it in the jobs or in gross product, but people are spending money.”

Candidates will spend money this year, thanks to an open governor’s seat following former governor Joe Manchin’s election to the U.S. senate. There will be a primary in May and a general election in October. “We don’t know what the money will be yet, but we’re hoping it’s going to be good,” says Fawcett.

WSAZ of course leads the revenue race. It booked $18.65 million in 2009, the last year for which BIA/Kelsey currently has figures, while WCHS, WVAH and WOWK were all in the $7.55 million–$7.95 million range. The runners-up are gunning to capture second place outright. Cunningham’s WVAH and Sinclair’s WCHS are under one roof and share an Eyewitness News brand. WVAH-WCHS has put more resources into its Charleston news operation, hiring new reporting talent, and the stations are about to debut what GM Harold Cooper calls a “live to mobile” mini newscast that will go to smartphones. Users opt in for the mobile ‘cast, which will feature a morning anchor reporting a handful of news stories, clocking in at under five minutes and hitting phones between the a.m. and midday news.

The mobile newscast will be ad-supported and free to users. “We’re excited to see how it catches on,” says Cooper. “Once it’s up and running, we’ll look for a sponsor.”

WSAZ, meanwhile, is looking at how it can stay (way) ahead. Don Ray credits Gray for putting “a ton of money” into the HD adoption. No news expansions are scheduled for the station, but Ray won’t rule anything out. “Local news is the key to our future,” he says. “We’re always examining it.”

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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.