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Market Eye: The Joys of Lex

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It is the happy time of year in Lexington, Ky. College basketball is a regional religion, and the Kentucky Wildcats thrilled the market with an NCAA basketball championship in early April. Then hoops gave way to horse racing—another pastime that generates outsize passion locally.

Lexington is known as the thoroughbred capital of the U.S., and even the world. “People underestimate how much money it brings in to the market,” says Michael Brickey, general manager at WDKY.

The locals slip into horse racing metaphors in conversation, such as one about the ratings derby in DMA No. 64. “If I was a horse handicapper, I’d say it’s been a two-horse race for a long time,” says Wayne Martin, WKYT president and general manager. “NBC dominates horse racing in April, but we dominated March with basketball. It’s a tight, tight race.”

Yet the NBC af! liate, Cordillera Communications’ WLEX, has pulled ahead. WLEX won mornings in the February sweeps, along with a tight early evening news race. CBS affiliate WKYT won primetime and was virtually deadlocked with WLEX at 11 p.m. and in total-day ratings in terms of households.

WLEX is stronger in viewers 25-54. Pat Dalbey, WLEX president and general manager, says the station thrives on hard news, breaking news and enterprise reporting. “We go in depth a little more,” he says, “and we have phenomenal weather coverage.”

All the stations were put to the test when what Dalbey calls “horrendous” weather struck the market in early March, including a series of tornadoes. Dalbey gives the broadcast community high marks for informing the public. “I believe, because of broadcasters in this state, a lot of lives were saved that day,” he says. “As an industry, we lived up to what we are charged with—keeping people informed under the direst of circumstances.”

That includes Sinclair’s Fox affiliate WDKY and Morris Network’s ABC affiliate WTVQ. Several local broadcasters have multiple station offerings; Gray Television has both WKYT and sister CBS outlet WYMT, around 125 miles away in Hazard. WYMT airs its own 6 and 11 p.m. news. “They’re a factor in the market,” says Martin.

WKYT airs The CW as a multicast channel, while WTVQ has MyNetworkTV on its digital tier. In fact, WTVQ has one of the liveliest multicast strategies around; both WTVQ and the local MyNet air in HD, and WTVQ added Antenna TV to its .3 channel last December. “We’re a strong believer in multicasting,” says Chris Aldridge, general manager. “We certainly enjoy the growth we’ve seen in our multicast channels.”

Time Warner Cable is the primary cable operator; it turned into the “800-pound gorilla,” as Aldridge puts it, following TWC’s acquisition last year of Insight, the second-largest operator in Lexington.

Station general managers say the local economy is on strong footing. A diverse business portfolio that includes not only thoroughbreds, but bourbon, hospitals, government and universities keeps Lexington humming. One heartening sign is local marketers returning to television after a protracted hiatus. “We’re seeing advertisers who disappeared in the heart of the recession coming back,” says Aldridge. “We’re seeing bigger budgets, too.”

Stations are innovating to get ahead. WLEX was first in the market to go live with news at 4:30 a.m. (which started April 23) and is finding success with newish 4 and 7 p.m. newscasts. The station also added Me-TV in January. “There’s been a very good response,” says Dalbey. “We didn’t expect to get huge ratings at this point, but it has caught on quickly.”

WTVQ this fall will add the syndicated Katie and Jeff Probst. WDKY is putting greater emphasis on its interactive tools, including Web, mobile and social media. “It’s a big focus,” says Brickey. “It’s creating revenue and giving viewers more opportunities to see our products.”

Brickey notes that WDKY in February had the No. 3 10 p.m. news among Fox stations nationwide in adults 25-54 and was No. 1 among Sinclair’s many Fox affiliates.

WKYT got to show off its technological knowhow during March Madness. Reporters and anchors hit the Big Easy with iPads, and the station used a trio of TVUPacks while covering UK’s appearance in the Final Four. “It’s basically backpacks replacing gas-guzzling live trucks,” says Martin. “Anchors sitting in New Orleans are just as connected as if they were sitting in our studio.”

College basketball does outrageous ratings in Lexington. WKYT execs estimate the Kentucky vs. Kansas NCAA title game on April 2 posted a 61 rating in Lexington, a Nielsen diary market. Regular-season UK games did around a 30 household rating; a Wednesday afternoon practice even pulled a 5 rating. The Wildcats’ championship win still has Lexington buzzing.

“People are enjoying life here,” says Brickey. “This town is glowing.”

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