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Market Eye: Moving the Needle in Seattle

With top-flight news outfits and a well-educated market, the Seattle stations look to differentiate themselves with signature local programming. Leader KING has Sounders soccer matches and the new product-integration program New Day Northwest. KIRO was all over Seattle’s beloved Seafair festival. KOMO keeps viewers informed with the community Websites that owner Fisher is rolling out locally.

The ratings race is hot in Seattle-Tacoma. “The market has become the most competitive I’ve ever seen,” says KIRO VP/General Manager Eric Lerner, “in terms of local news and the battle going on between the stations.”

KING retained its hold on the ratings crown in May. Belo’s NBC affiliate won morning and early evening news, total day ratings and late news; its 4.9 household rating/13 share at 11 topped CBS affiliate KIRO’s 4.2 rating/11 share and ABC outlet KOMO’s 3.8 rating/10 share. Cox-owned KIRO won primetime.

KING President/General Manager Ray Heacox, recently named head of Belo’s digital operations, says the station thrives on intense community involvement, long anchor tenure— including Jean Enersen’s 42 years behind the desk—and in-depth investigative reporting, such as a recent segment on excessive budgetary waste within the state’s ferry system. “The net effect was some significant changes were made in the way the ferry system operates,” Heacox points out. “It’s proof of what we do.”

KING won the 2009 revenue race in DMA No. 13 with $66.3 million, according to BIA/ Kelsey, ahead of KOMO’s $60 million. Duopolies abound: Belo also owns independent KONG, Tribune has the Fox-MyNetworkTV duo KCPQ and KMYQ, and Fisher also owns Univision affiliate KUNS, which airs news at 6 and 11 p.m. Also in the hunt are CBS-owned CW outlet KSTW and LK Station Group’s indie KVOS.

KSTW VP/Station Manager Steve Gahler says syndicated runs of The Office play well with Seattle’s sophisticated viewers. He hopes a Saturday Stargate block finds a big audience when it starts in September. “It’s a good market for sci-fi,” he says.

The general managers say business is not at the level it was pre-recession. Seattle-Tacoma is home to Starbucks, Boeing and Microsoft, but Washington Mutual’s collapse wiped out a giant jobs source, major tenant and key TV advertiser. “Business is not back to 2008 levels, but at least it’s showing improvement,” says Fisher Seattle VP/General Manager Jim Clayton, who oversees Fisher’s local TV and radio stations. “We’ll see what kind of political money is coming; we’re anticipating more than we originally forecast.”

News crews descended on the region when the Barefoot Bandit, as local airplane thief Colton Harris-Moore is known, was on the lam. The fugitive was nabbed last month in the Bahamas. “It was a huge story, an interesting story,” says Lerner, who says KIRO nailed a station exclusive with Colton’s feisty mother, Pam. “It was a Washington story that became a big national story.”

The Seattle stations are constantly looking to one-up each other. KING moved Ellen to 3 p.m. to make room for New Day Northwest at 11 a.m. The station has not made a decision on what to do when Oprah departs next year. KOMO “dominates” at 4 p.m., Clayton says, with its advocacy-focused journalism.

Lerner mentions KIRO tying KING in the 25- 54 demo at 11 p.m. in May, and the station’s extensive coverage of the Seafair summer gala, which includes a hydroplane race and air show, that’s an annual hit with viewers. “It’s a neat, special, unique Seattle event,” he says. “It’s got quite a following in person and on television.”

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