Market Eye: The Rhode to Recovery

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Rhode Island’s economy may be dismal, but its TV stations are spending on making their product better in the increasingly competitive market. Providence (R.I.)-New Bedford (Mass.) has been a WJAR market for decades, though NBC’s ailing primetime and parent Media General’s newspaper group ills tightened the race in recent years. But Media General is a pure-play broadcaster after off-loading its print division, and NBC’s prime looks solid.

“I think everyone here is optimistic about the future,” says Vic Vetters, vice president and general manager of WJAR. “[Media General] can concentrate and reinvest resources in broadcast instead of supporting its other investments. I think we’re poised to make progress.”

WLNE is getting much needed investment too. The station was a sick puppy leading up to Citadel Communications’ acquisition of it, including a stint in receivership. But Chris Tzianabos, vice president and general manager, says Citadel is spending big to get the ABC affi liate turned around, evident in a fully HD facility, a new set and a new production facility. “There’s been an infusion of cash and talent,” Tzianabos says. “We think there’s an opportunity right now to get some sampling in this market.”

WPRI-WNAC, meanwhile, also continue to chip away at WJAR’s eminence. Longtime WPRI-WNAC general manager Jay Howell has moved to a regional oversight role with corporate parent LIN TV, with general sales manager Patrick Wholey taking over at the stations. Both Howell and Wholey credit the company for making the two stations (LIN owns CBS affiliate WPRI and manages Fox outlet WNAC) competitive. “LIN gives us everything we need as general managers,” says Howell. “It’s terrific to be a general manager in LIN.”

LIN completed its $330 million acquisition of the 13 New Vision stations in mid-October. LIN also owns the MyNetworkTV affiliate; myRITV airs on a subchannel and attracts a male audience with sitcoms and local sports.

The CW affiliate WLWC is not without change as well. Sinclair acquired the station a year ago in the Four Points Media deal.

Cox is the market’s major cable operator, while Comcast is big in the Massachusetts end of the DMA. Verizon FiOS is making inroads as well.

The rival GMs may still be learning each other’s names and faces. Tzianabos, formerly of WFXT Boston, moved down to Providence in May 2011. Vetters took over at WJAR in fall 2011. WPRI-WNAC’s Wholey got his promotion in mid-October.

WJAR retained its ratings crown in last May’s sweeps. The station took total day household ratings, along with morning, early evening and late news, the latter with a 5.5 household rating/11 share, ahead of WPRI’s 4.6/10. WPRI took primetime and the 6 p.m. news race in adults 25-54.

Vetters says the experience of the WJAR news crew spells the difference. He notes that staffers average 14 years at the station, contrasting with his own modest one year at the helm. “That helps our ability to execute local television,” Vetters says. “There’s a trust factor there for viewers.”

Rhode Island’s economy is abysmal; only Nevada has a higher unemployment rate, according to the Bureau of Labor. The White House hopefuls are not spending in the market, but those vying for a Massachusetts seat in the Senate, Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren, are. Wholey notes that core business is up for the year, thanks to a surge in auto advertising.

The stations are trying new things to get ahead. WLNE has the syndicated Katie at 3 p.m. and Jeff Probst at 4. The main challenge for Tzianabos is communicating the new WLNE game plan to viewers and his own staffers. Radio campaigns around the fall launch and November sweeps, and a new set of image spots each month, target the former. The latter may take time. “They’ve been to hell and back,” he says of WLNE personnel. “You earn their trust by showing them you’re willing to invest.”

That means sending reporters to out-of-market happenings such as the Oct. 16 presidential debate on New York’s Long Island and the Super Bowl. “Some stations won’t spend the money to do that,” Tzianabos notes.

At the start of the year, WNAC expanded its morning show another hour, moving local program The Rhode Show over to WPRI. Ted Nesi, the political blogger WPRI picked up in 2010 (B&C, May 30, 2011), hosts the local CEO talk show Executive Suite that launched over the summer, and is a bigger factor in investigative reports. “More than anything else, our investigative stories just absolutely trounce everything else in the market,” enthuses Wholey.

WPRI-WNAC is in good hands with its new GM, says Howell, now based at LIN HQ across the Providence River. “I’m proud of what we built here,” he says. “It’s hard to hand the reins to Patrick, but I won’t lose sleep over 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.