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Market Eye: Saint Misbehavin’

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Kentucky was favored to win the NCAA men’s basketball title earlier this month in New Orleans, and did so handily. The April 2 final aired locally on WWL, which knows something about going out and playing like a champ: The Belo station, which swept the February sweeps, simply does not lose ratings races.

Yet the competition, fueled by unique innovations and owners with serious news chops and/or deep pockets, is pushing WWL hard. “I’m not sure how long their claim of dominant station in New Orleans will remain,” says Joe Cook, president and general manager of WVUE. “It’s a contact sport here. It helps you stay on your toes.”

Speaking of contact sports, local news crews are unearthing the latest developments stemming from the bounty system the beloved NFL Saints had in place, with players rewarded monetarily for hard, and at times injurious, hits, on opponents. Local fans are outraged at the season-long suspension for Saints head coach Sean Payton. The imbroglio presented a unique situation for WVUE; parent Louisiana Media Co. is owned by Tom Benson, who also owns the Saints.

“We have a responsibility to cover it, and cover it aggressively, as have all the media in town,” says Cook. “But we are outraged [at the punishment], as fans and friends of this city.”

It’s been a tough road back for New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in 2005. The market went from No. 43 to No. 53 when Nielsen resumed measuring New Orleans; it is now No. 52. Crime remains a problem, and the hurricane season officially begins June 1.

But people in the Big Easy are upbeat. The annual 10- day Jazz Fest starts April 27. And after putting on good shows for the BCS college football and NCAA hoops championships, New Orleans will host the Super Bowl next February.

The local television business is looking better. “Slowly but surely, we’re getting back to a stronger financial position,” says Joel Vilmenay, president and general manager of WDSU.

Cox is the main subscription TV operator in the market. New Orleans’ TV news output has grown. Hearst TV’s NBC affiliate, WDSU, added a 4 p.m. news two years ago and a 4:30 a.m. show last year. WWL jumped into the 4:30 a.m. fray this month. Tribune’s ABC outlet WGNO expanded its early evening News With a Twist franchise. Fox affiliate WVUE added a 4 p.m. news last fall.

“We’ve seen a lot of news expansion in the market,” says Vilmenay. “We have made some important strategic moves that have worked out well for us.”

Bud Brown, VP/GM of WWL, does not seem too worried about the increased competition. Sweeping the sweeps is typical for the CBS affiliate, which took February’s late news race with a 9.9 household rating/14 share at 10 p.m.—ahead of WVUE’s 6.7/10. “I still say look at the ratings books—we’ve won every book for 30 years, and continue to do so,” says Brown, who also manages Belo’s MyNetworkTV affiliate WUPL.

Bill Siegel took over as WWL news director last year. Brown says WWL thrives on its news gatherers knowing the market better and adding the right context to content. He also believes the station simply chases breaking news better. “WWL powers up faster to cover a breaking story,” Brown says. “We’re able to deploy our assets faster and in the right position better than anyone else.”

Stations are scrambling for an advantage. John Cruse, vice president and general manager of WGNO, is bullish on News With a Twist, which works off the premise that people already know the day’s headlines by 5 p.m. WGNO added another half-hour of the locally produced show in January; it now bookends ABC World News at 5 and 6. The content is mostly upbeat, the weather is delivered quickly and without much pomp and the show reflects “the vibe of the city,” says Cruse. “It gives us an identity. When it’s 5 p.m. and the TVs come on, you know which one is News With a Twist.”

WWL has Dr. Oz in place of the departed Oprah Winfrey. WDSU offers unique mobile apps, including a Parade Tracker for New Orleans’ festive season, and Hurricane Central; a new version comes out June 1. WVUE has the syndicated Katie and Jeff Probst for fall and a new control room and studio overlooking the Superdome from the former Dominion Tower, now known as Benson Tower.

All competitors will have to work doubly hard to take down WWL. Bud Brown suggests that part of the competition upping its game is the preponderance of former WWL staffers working at other NOLA stations. “Our competitors do a great job—there’s much more competition than there was five years ago,” he says. “But when they win a ratings book, let me know.”

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