Market Eye: Looking for Volunteers

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Counter to the old sports axiom, nice guys do, on occasion, finish first. WBIR has been trumpeting its “Straight From the Heart” brand—a more positive perspective on the market—in Knoxville, Tenn. for three decades, and it seems a right fit for this genteel city. The Gannett station, featuring a bright red heart in its logo, is the undisputed ratings leader. Jeff Lee, WBIR president and general manager, describes the station’s mission as “serving the greater good” in Knoxville. “It’s the way we conduct ourselves, both internally and externally,” says Lee. “It’s not car wrecks and body bags. Viewers don’t want that.”

The WBIR brand got a larger platform in 2011. The station ceased producing news for CW affiliate WBXX and started doing so for Fox station WTNZ. WBIR is also creating considerably more news for its partner: a two-hour morning show and an hour at 10 p.m. “It’s a brand that everybody in the market knows,” Kelvin Mize, VP and general manager at Raycom’s WTNZ, says of WBIR. “It’s great for us to use that brand to our advantage.”

Young Broadcasting’s WATE now produces the 10 p.m. news for WBXX. Stan Knott, who oversees WATE from Young’s WKRN Nashville, says he’s close to hiring a GM. WATE this fall will add the syndicated Live! With Kelly and Michael. “That will help us refocus our efforts in mornings,” says Knott. “Then we’ll figure out where to go, and what to grow, next.”

WBXX parent Lockwood Broadcasting acquired Knoxville religious station WMAK and converted it to independent WKNX in early March. “We’re very pleased with the way Knoxville has treated us,” says Neal Davis, WBXX general manager. “Therefore, we’re willing to invest more in the market by buying another station.”

DMA No. 61 is in eastern Tennessee. WBIR is the NBC affiliate and WATE airs ABC. Gray TV owns CBS-aligned WVLT, which shows MyNetworkTV on its dot-two. The main subscription TV operators are Comcast and Charter.

“It’s a very pleasant southern market,” says Chris Baker, WVLT general manager and a Gray executive VP.

WVLT won primetime in the February sweeps, while WBIR took the rest of the ratings races. WBIR’s 5.6 household rating/10.7 share at 11 p.m., ahead of WVLT’s 5.1/9.7, significantly builds on its inauspicious primetime rating of 4.2/6. Morning and early evening races were decisive wins for WBIR.

WVLT has undergone a rebrand, breaking from its sports-minded Volunteer TV News to Local 8 News. “We’re trying to take as much of a local tack as we can,” says Baker, who mentions more of a focus not only on severe weather but “impactful” weather, too—the type that can foul up your day if you’re not prepared.

Baker is playing up sports on the station’s MyVLT dottwo channel.

Knoxville is mad for local University of Tennessee football. The Volunteers have underperformed for years, but optimism runs high with new coach Butch Jones. (With a six-year, $18 million deal, Jones isn’t exactly a volunteer.) The fate of the team is closely tied to that of the market. “It seems that, as UT football goes, so does the excitement level in the market,” says Baker. “It’s one of those markets where people’s moods are affected by the football team.”

The arrival of several national retailers has station GMs optimistic as well. Publix, Sports Authority, Trader Joe’s and Costco have all set up shop in the market in recent years. “Those are good votes for the health of Knoxville,” Lee says.

WBIR is spreading its Straight From the Heart message on all available platforms, including 4½-minute newscasts on gas pumps around town. “We like to make money where we can,” Lee says. “But we want to make sure our product is available wherever people might want 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.