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Market Eye: Music City Stations Tune Up

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If things are looking brighter in the Nashville TV world, it may be because, as of this fall, the major stations all offer hi-def local news. The front-runners have been doing so for some time, while Fox affiliate WZTV flipped the switch in September and ABC affiliate WKRN made the move in October.

Going last enabled WKRN to study the competition’s best HD practices. “There’s an advantage to not going earlier,” says Deb McDermott, Young Broadcasting president. “You can get the best equipment that makes you the most efficient.”

With WKRN’s growth following parent Young’s emergence from bankruptcy (the station picked up a whopping 3.7% of market-revenue share from 2009 to 2010, says BIA/Kelsey), it’s an invigorated news scene in DMA No. 29. Stations are launching shows, jazzing up sets and expanding their reach on non-traditional platforms. “Everyone here focuses on good things for the community,” says Debbie Turner, president and general manager at WTVF, “and good things for broadcasting.”

No one does it better than Landmark Media’s WTVF. The station has the top primetime of any CBS affiliate in the Top 60 markets, says program director Mark Binda. WTVF won every major ratings race in last May’s sweeps, including late news with an 11.1 household rating/17 share, better than WSMV’s 9.6/15. (WTVF led in 25-54 ratings, 6.2/16 to 4.9/13.)

Landmark was set to sell WTVF to Bonten Media in 2008, but the deal cratered amidst the nation’s credit crunch. The station “is not being marketed at this point in time,” says Turner, who adds that WTVF could be available if the right bid were to come in.

The station has thrived due to Landmark not laying off or furloughing staffers during the recession, says Turner. “We continued to be aggressive with our key strategic objectives,” she says.

WTVF has worked through a more recent challenge. Nashville was devastated by flooding in May 2010, and a sewage backup in WTVF’s building prompted the station to move the newsroom several floors up from May until this past March, making do with folding chairs and tables and makeshift offices.

The flood brought the market together, local TV executives say, and showed the stations at their best. It was also a chance for WKRN to show it’s in the game for real. General Manager Stan Knott says WKRN is about “mattering most when stories matter most. We feel a real good sense of momentum.”

WKRN renewed its partnership with the NFL’s Tennessee Titans for preseason games and a coach’s show. The station relaunched weekend-morning news Oct. 8, two years after scrapping it. WKRN has a new news brand that plays up its community roots, and has targeted mornings for improvement; that daypart has some new faces and a warmer vibe. “It’s not necessarily a newscast, but a place,” says Knott, who likens the morning show to “your favorite coffee shop.”

Meredith owns NBC affiliate WSMV, where Doreen Wade was named general manager in March after Elden Hale retired. Rivals say the station has increased its investigative output.

Sinclair owns the Fox and MyNetworkTV affiliates and manages Lambert’s CW affiliate WNAB through a joint sales agreement. In a nod to Nashville’s rich music scene, WUXT and WNAB offer music on their subchannels in the form of The Cool TV and Country Network. WZTV has four hours of morning news and goes 9-10:35 p.m. with news during the week (9-10 on weekends). The morning show has weather and traffic every 10 minutes on the 7s. Dominic Mancuso, WZTV general manager, notes that the Fox affiliate stays local when other local station go to network shows. “We’re all local, all morning,” he says. “When everyone else goes to New York at 7, we’re still in Nashville.”

Comcast is the maket’s major cable operator, followed by Charter. AT&T’s u-Verse is making subscription TV more competitive.

There are many reasons to be encouraged about the local economy. Nashville is the state capital and has a wealth of universities. Tourism, driven by the music scene, is a major economic factor, and will be aided by the building of a new convention center. Nissan’s U.S. headquarters is here. GM is reopening a Saturn plant that has been dormant for a few years.

“The vibrancy of Nashville makes it a really good place to do business,” says Knott.

With rural outskirts and longer commutes, Nashville offers no fewer than three 4 a.m. newscasts. “It’s an early- morning market,” says Binda. “HUTS [Houses Using Television at 4 a.m.] are over 20 [percent] in this market.”

WTVF is getting tougher, with a six-person investigative team and one of a handful of station Websites that outdraws the big local newspaper. The station airs 7 a.m. news on a subchannel, and is testing out mini newscasts on various Mapco gas pumps around the market. “As it gets bigger,” says Turner, “we’ll look at it as a revenue opportunity.”

Residents say Nashville’s considerable charms make it a great place to live and work—where entertainment options are endless, and people help each other out in times of need, such as during last year’s fl ood. “People say this is really a different kind of place,” says Knott. “The spirit of Nashville is phenomenal.”

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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.