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Market Eye: They’re Anchored to Alaska

Alaska, to many in the so-called Lower 48, possesses considerable mystique: the famed pipeline snaking through vast wilderness, the monumental snow, the ubiquitous Palin clan. But to the general managers here, DMA No. 150 isn’t fundamentally different from DMA No. 149 (Wichita Falls, Texas-Lawton, Okla.) or DMA No. 151 (Panama City, Fla.). Viewing goes up during those frozen winters, and down this time of year when it’s warm and sunny.

“I don’t know any real difference in viewership behavior,” says KTVA General Manager Jerry Bever. “It’s a big misconception that Anchorage is completely different than other markets.”

One unique challenge can be attracting talent; Alaska typically appeals to a certain kind of individual who’s in the hunt for adventure. Nonetheless, the Anchorage anchor crews have been relatively stable of late. “We’ve seen consistency here on the air,” says Alaska Broadcasters Association Executive Assistant Cathy Hiebert, “particularly with Channel 2 and Channel 11.”

Channel 2 is leader KTUU, and 11 is KTVA. Schurz bought NBC affiliate KTUU for $26 million in 2008. The station’s $10 million take in 2009, according to BIA/Kelsey, was 40% of the market’s overall revenue. Second is CBS affiliate KTVA’s $6.4 million.

KTUU produces 19½ hours of news a week out of its 50-staffer newsroom, which its managers say is easily the largest in the market. News Director Steve MacDonald says it thrives on “substantive storytelling,” not car chases and crime, with tenacious coverage of state politics from capital Juneau. “We talk about how the issues affect people’s lives every day,” he says.

KTVA is owned by Affiliated Media, a holding company formed after owner Media News Group was compelled to sell its stations as part of a reorganization plan. Vision Alaska owns ABC affiliate KIMO and Coastal Television owns Fox affiliate KTBY; both are managed by Scott Centers and will move into the same building. KIMO airs CW programming on its .2 channel. Locally owned Fireweed Communications has MyNetworkTV affiliate KYES; owner Jeremy Lansman says the station is for sale. Ketchikan TV airs Ion on KDMD’s main signal and Telemundo on its digital tier.

Anchorage is a diary market, and the cable operator is GCI. Oil, tourism and government are the primary sources of employment and revenue in Anchorage. The market is ranked No. 116 in TV revenue, but general managers say it still feels like a recession. “The Lower 48 are bouncing back right now,” Bever says. “We’re not seeing that in Anchorage.”

With KTUU’s wide lead, it can be tough for the other stations to find their niche. “KTUU gets as much as half the audience at times—it’s very reckless to compete with that,” Lansman points out. “It forces you to think outside the box.”

KTVA offers deeper-digging signature reports in its news lineup. Coastal Television recently announced that KTBY News Director/Anchor Trill Gates is interim news director for Coastal’s newsrooms throughout the state, including those in Fairbanks and Juneau. KTBY will also extend its 9 p.m. news to an hour in September.

Sarah Palin was a sports intern at KTUU for a short stint in 1988 before embarking on her political career. The Palins’ doings, whether it’s Sarah’s political ambitions or Bristol’s mercurial relationship with Levi Johnston, are more than just local news. “They’re a dominant story in all news,” Bever jokes.

The snowy season starts about a month earlier than in the contiguous U.S., and lasts a month longer. Winter is downright frigid, but the locals say it’s a drier snow, with less wind than other parts of the U.S. Plus, Alaskans have thick skin. As Bever says: “We’re used to it up here.”

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