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Market Eye: Three Cities, Two Rivals

Stations that part ways with Nielsen are, typically, not a local news power in their market. That’s not the case in the Tri-Cities along the Virginia-Tennessee border, where WCYB, starting this year, dropped its Nielsen ratings service. Jack Dempsey, WCYB VP and general manager, cites a “general dissatisfaction” with Nielsen—too small a sample size, and too long before the information is available. “Rentrak shares [its data] within two weeks,” says Dempsey. “It’s a continual line of information to aid our local sales team.”

A Nielsen representative said the company is “actively working to enhance our local measurement, increasing sample sizes and improving representation by statistically determining demographics” in households.

Licensed to Bristol, Va., WCYB is a major player in the Tri-Cities. The NBC affiliate is owned by Bonten Media, has a shared services agreement with Esteem Broadcasting’s Fox outlet, WEMT, and airs The CW on WCYB’s dot-two channel. It makes for a formidable operation.

WJHL is owned by Media General and is licensed to Johnson City, Tenn. Dempsey knows his most significant competitor well—he spent 27 years at WJHL, including 23 as the general manager, before jumping across the street in 2012. WJHL VP/GM Dan Cates says the station used extensive research to shape a strategy that has resulted in ratings gains. The station employs an “In Your Corner” branding statement and a more tenacious news presence. “It’s a harder-edge format,” says Cates. “It’s worked really well for us.”

WJHL is aligned with CBS. The station used to produce news for WKPT, but the ABC affiliate is going it alone now. WKPT, licensed to Kingsport, Tenn., is a rare breed—the lone full-power TV station in the Glenwood group, which features radio and low-power TV stations. Early in 2013, WKPT debuted 6 and 11 p.m. news after dipping its toe in the water with 10-minute segments at 6 and 7 a.m. “We’ve had quite an investment in news,” says George Devault, general manager of WKPT and president of the group. “If you want to be competitive, you’ve got to be on in mornings.”

WKPT also does not subscribe to Nielsen. The station extends its reach via multicast channels, including the local MyNetworkTV affiliate, Cozi TV and country music channel Heartland.

Devault has run WKPT since 1979. He acknowledges that lacking scale presents challenges, but says the group is committed to owning WKPT. “We obviously don’t have the bargaining power a big group has,” he says. “But we do pretty well with syndicators, and up to now, the network has been fair with us.” Syndicated shows on WKPT include Steve Harvey and Two and a Half Men.

Charter Communications is the “Tri” region’s primary subscription TV operator, and Comcast has a presence too. Nielsen slots the Tri-Cities at DMA No. 97, while BIA/Kelsey has it at No. 113 in terms of revenue. That resource shows WCYB taking in an estimated $14 million last year, ahead of WJHL’s $11.95 million and WEMT’s $4.7 million, with WKPT bringing up the rear among the Big Four. BIA/Kelsey forecasts the market taking in $35.6 million in 2015—up $1 million from 2014.

“It’s headed in the right direction,” says Cates. “It’s a vibrant market, and we look at it to grow even more.”

The Tri-Cities is socially conservative, with a natural beauty thanks to the Appalachians. Coal is a major industry, and NASCAR is part of the local fabric. Bristol Motor Speedway is a fan favorite, with the “Night Race at Bristol” due at the beloved bullring in mid-August. “We all hang our hats on NASCAR here,” says Dempsey.

WCYB took the major news races in the February sweeps, per Rentrak. That includes a tight win in late news—WCYB had a 10.1 household rating/16 share, just ahead of WJHL’s 9.6/16. (Adults 25-54 was WCYB at 8.1/22 and WJHL at 7.2/19.) WCYB also won the total-day ratings race and primetime.

News director John Soares came on board at WCYB a year ago, following a stint earlier in his career at WJHL. Dempsey says the veteran’s presence in the newsroom has vastly improved the station’s social media presence.

But WJHL is hardly idle. The station late last year added two hours of morning news each Saturday and Sunday. “We’ve had growing local ratings,” says Cates. “When there was an opportunity to expand with local programming, it just made sense for us.”

WJHL and WCYB start their news at 4:30 a.m. and do battle throughout the day. Dempsey says WCYB thrives on a rock-solid foundation built decades ago. “If there’s a word that sums up this station, it’s stability,” says Dempsey. “That’s the strength of the station.”


John Soares, news director at WCYB, did not last long at a previous job in Wichita. He was news director at KWCH for just four months, ending in early 2013. Neither party said much about his departure, but he brought a reputation as a solid news performer to the Tri-Cities. WCYB, with a “Getting the Facts Right” branding, also welcomed Samantha Kozsey to the morning team a year ago. She started her career in Bluefield, W.Va., before working in Washington and St. Louis, among other larger markets. “This is like coming home,” Kozsey told viewers on her first appearance.

It feels like home for Jack Dempsey, WCYB-WEMT VP and general manager, after three decades in the market. “Each town that makes up the ‘Tri’ is somewhat unique from the other, and that makes it all the more interesting here,” says the Kentucky native, who was awarded the 2014 Distinguished Service Award by the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters. “I am truly blessed to live someplace that every day I drive to work I am in awe of the natural beauty—looking at these mountains hasn’t gotten old or mundane in my 30 years here.”

Michael Malone
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.