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Market Eye: KREM of the Crop

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KHQ Spokane isn’t sitting around waiting for NBC’s primetime to jump-start this fall, but the long-awaited turnaround at 30 Rock sure would be nice for the Cowles-owned station. KHQ and CBS rival KREM have been locked in a tight ratings and revenue battle for years, but KREM’s primacy in prime, among other factors, has helped the station grab the momentum in Spokane.

CBS primetime rocks right now, but everyone in the KREM newsroom has played a part in the station’s emergence. The anchors are out there reporting, and all reporters are self-sufficient VJs. “I’m real proud of our staff,” says Jamie Aitken, president and general manager at KREM. “It was a tough recession and we trimmed staff, but we accomplish a lot more with our resources than anyone in the community.”

Belo’s KREM and KHQ split the May sweeps titles. KHQ edged out KREM in total day household ratings, but KREM aced primetime, nearly doubling KHQ’s numbers. KREM had the highest 5 p.m. news ratings and took late news with a 4.1 household rating/21 share— besting KHQ’s 3.3/17. KHQ, employing a fresh “New, Now, Next” philosophy in mornings, won a.m. news. “There’s a harder edge and not so much chatter,” says Patricia McCrae, KHQ president/general manager. “And Weather on the 6’s has really resonated with viewers.”

KHQ edged out KREM in July’s late news race.

With the fall season here, some new battles are taking shape. KREM debuted a 6:30 p.m. news Sept. 12, moving Access Hollywood to, fittingly, access. It will face off with Morgan Murphy Media’s ABC affiliate, KXLY, in that slot. “It’s a time period we looked at for some time,” says Aitken. “There are only a few places to expand.”

KXLY countered with a new anchor team Sept. 12, with Good Morning Northwest anchors Nadine Woodward and Mike Gonzalez shifting to 5, 6 and 6:30 p.m., and evening anchor Robyn Nance and sports director Derek Deis taking over daybreak. Teddie Gibbon, VP and general manager at KXLY, says the moves give the station “the best opportunity for continued long-term success.”

KXLY got back in the 11 p.m. news game, albeit in truncated form, on Sept. 3. A few years after scrapping a late Saturday newscast, KXLY debuted a weekly 10-minute show called 411 early this month.

A battle is shaping up at 4 p.m. too, where Dr. Oz has succeeded Oprah Winfrey on KREM, moving from 7 p.m. “When you lose an institution like Oprah, it’s nice to know that one of her most popular guests is taking her place,” says Aitken.

KHQ has put Ellen at 3 p.m., leading into Judge Judy’s 4 p.m. slot. KHQ program director Mike Dugger says the move will invigorate KHQ’s underperforming 5 p.m. news. “We’ve been weak at 5 because of Oprah on KREM,” he says. “We think that will change now.”

While KREM and KHQ do battle for the ratings titles, the competition doesn’t drop off much after them. All Big Four affiliates pull in at least 20% of Spokane’s broadcast revenue, according to BIA/Kelsey, an atypical level of market parity. (KREM and KHQ were virtually deadlocked at a little more than $14 million in revenue last year, per BIA.) Brian Brady’s Northwest Broadcasting owns Fox affiliate KAYU. Belo owns CW af! liate KSKN, and KXLY airs MyNetworkTV on its multicast channel. Comcast is the dominant cable operator in Spokane.

KHQ has one of the more innovative multicast channels in the country, airing more than 200 live sports events per year—spanning high school basketball to motocross to arena football—on its “SWX” channel. SWX features a SportsCenter-esque nightly wrap-up show at 10:30. The network is also carried in other Washington markets, including Yakima.

“We’ve really expanded SWX to produce as much as we can,” says McRae.

Spokane jumped from DMA No. 75 to 73 in the most recent Nielsen market ranking, thanks to a 1.4% population growth rate from 2005 to 2010 (according to BIA/Kelsey). The governor’s race will spark political spending next year, but the local economy is sputtering a bit. “Flat is the new up,” says Debbie Sieverding, general sales manager at KXLY. “We don’t have the peaks and valleys. We have small rises and low falls.”

A giant medical community, government and Fairchild Air Force Base are Spokane’s main employers. Additions downtown have the Inland Northwest city looking decidedly more cosmopolitan. An Apple store arrived last fall, and Trader Joe’s will start selling its quirky grocery offerings next month. “Downtown is strong,” says Sieverding.

The top dogs are scrambling to further break from the pack. KHQ has a new investigative department and a very popular interactive segment starring Dan Kleckner called Connect With Kleck. KREM says it had the most page views among Spokane news sites in June, topping even the Spokesman-Review newspaper. KREM’s digital game plan is robust, with a weather app that came out in July, an app covering Gonzaga basketball forthcoming and Belo’s digital couponing initiative.

“Everyone in the newsroom,” says Aitken, “is a digital contributor.”

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