Masters of Their Domain

When the February sweeps results came in at WTHR Indianapolis, VP/General Manager Jim Tellus got the staff together in the studio, sprung for a bunch of goodies, he says—veggies, cheese, a few dessert trays—and called out the results newscast by newscast: “5 a.m., No. 1…6 a.m., No. 1.”

And so it went, until it dawned on the 100-plus staffers in the room that for the first time in station history, WTHR won every news race. “The atmosphere was electric—it was one of those times when people didn't want to head back to their respective corners of the station,” Tellus says. “They didn't want to lose the moment.”

Like many NBC affiliates, WTHR doesn't hit particularly high marks in prime, though Tellus was pleased to see it tie CBS outlet WISH for second in households, well behind the Fox affiliate. But WTHR nonetheless posts market-best late-news numbers with a 9.4 household rating/19 share, and leads all Indianapolis stations with more than 30% of total revenue. Tellus credits the ample resources he's given by owner Dispatch Broadcast Group with helping the station overcome NBC's protracted primetime slump, as well as clearly defining the station brand—and effectively communicating that to viewers.

“You have to have a great local strategy first—how are you going to own the market?” Tellus says. “Primetime has a big impact on late news, of course, but if you've got a very strong brand and loyal viewers, it almost doesn't matter what your affiliation is.”

It's a similar story around the country, as numerous NBC affiliates, such as WBAL Baltimore, WTMJ Milwaukee and WSAZ Charleston, W.Va., continue to be top billers in their market despite NBC's struggles in prime. In fact, no fewer than 47 of the top 100 Nielsen markets showed an NBC affiliate on top in 2006 revenue (the most recent year available), according to BIA Financial. The next highest total of leading-revenue stations came from the CBS affiliates, with 30. (Among NBC's owned stations, KNBC led the 2006 revenue pack in Los Angeles, per BIA, WNBC led in New York, and WMAQ was in fourth in Chicago.)

There seems to be common ground among the thriving NBC affiliates. They've conquered their markets with a well-honed hyper-local game plan, they've executed a stellar digital strategy, and they possess a fiercely independent streak that indicates they're not going to sit around and wait for NBC to come up with the next Friends. As stations reinvent themselves as multi-platform media companies, not simply TV stations, in their markets, station executives say primetime's effect on an outlet's overall performance is less significant every day, and exceptional local programming effectively distributed across an array of platforms transcends even the most dour primetime.

“People have an affinity for their local call letters, not the network brand,” says Borrell Associates CEO Gordon Borrell. “There's very little residual value in primetime for local news. People don't say they watch NBC, they say they watch [Norfolk affiliate] WAVY.”

Hints of a prime rebound

To be sure, NBC's primetime has showed signs of resurgence, on the strength of unscripted shows like American Gladiators and The Biggest Loser. Thanks to its trove of fresh reality programming, NBC saw less of a slide during the writers' strike than ABC and CBS. Through 25 weeks this season, NBC is tied for third in adults 18-49 with a 3.0 rating/8 share, up from a No. 4 ranking at this point last year. (Fox is comfortably ahead, and ABC is in second.)

Furthermore, NBC reports that it is the “second-youngest” of the major broadcast networks, and was tops in February in adults 25-54 at 10:30—the crucial lead-in for late news. But NBC will be hard-pressed to avoid a fourth-place finish once the heavyweight scripted shows at its rivals hit the air en masse. “We think we'll be competitive,” says NBC Executive VP of Scheduling Mitch Metcalf. “But we have no illusions—it's going to be tough.”

Sports to the rescue

With the Olympics coming up in August and the Super Bowl in February, NBC executives say the next year bodes well for the Peacock's sustained success. “A ratings uptick, coupled with great events and their promotional opportunities—it's a pretty good overall situation to be in,” says John Eck, president of NBC Network and Media Works.

Managers at NBC affiliates seem optimistic about the network's newer offerings and swear by its franchise properties. “Give us Today to start, Leno at night, and Brian Williams in the middle, and it's still good to be an NBC affiliate,” says WSAZ General Manager Don Ray, whose station claims almost half the TV revenue in the Charleston-Huntington DMA.

But NBC has its challenges. It's struggled in daytime production, Jay Leno is set to step down from The Tonight Show in 2009, and the network's continued lack of breakout hits hurts its affiliates, which miss out on the enormous promotional platform in primetime (prime typically represents about 23% of an NBC affiliate's revenue), and may not benefit from an optimal lead-in to the late news. Those newscasts typically represent 25% of a station's news revenue, and as much as 10% of total revenue. “That's a huge factor if it's driving a quarter of your revenue,” says Frank N. Magid's TV President Steve Ridge. “You can't afford to not be firing on all cylinders.”

In light of such challenges, the thriving NBC affiliates speak of kicking their marketing efforts to a higher level of sophistication. One leading NBC outlet in California is taking a closer look at primetime demographics, and crafting the station's marketing accordingly—teasing a crime-related scoop in the late news during Law & Order, flogging a more light-hearted segment during Biggest Loser. For WBAL Baltimore, which won late news handily in February with an 11.4 household rating, despite a distant third-place finish in prime, it's about reminding viewers of the station's core strengths in political and weather coverage.

'Most compelling and timely' stories

WHEC Rochester, which was a close runner-up in late news in February despite a fourth-place finish in prime, recently scrapped its heavily promoted taped segments in late news on topics like dirty dining (VP/General Manager Arnold Klinsky calls them “watch or die” segments). Instead, WHEC teased more breaking news throughout the prime hours. “We worked very hard to find what our brand should be and what people are looking for [in late news],” says Klinsky. “It really worked for us to tell people in prime, 'Here's our most compelling and timely story tonight.'”

At WTMJ Milwaukee, VP/General Manager Steve Wexler stresses repeatedly reminding viewers about the Journal station's long history in the market. “We spent years building equity in our news brand; if there's a storm, we're the station of record,” he says. “It's not just about doing good marketing—it's about doing relentless marketing.”

Ridge says it's essential for these stations to play to their strengths in their promotions. “If you're getting that strong lead-in to late news, you'll more likely to marry yourself to network affairs,” he says. “If not, you need to talk more specifically about the unique attributes of your news product.”

As these affiliates have made local news their bread and butter over the years, and viewers show an increasing desire for hyper-local content, many have found that airing more of such programming is a sure-fire way to neutralize a primetime drain. “Affiliates that perform well do so because they've got great local imagery that's bigger than the network,” says Bruce Northcott of research firm Crawford Johnson & Northcott. “It's a stronger piece of people's perception of the station than the success or failure of certain network programs.”

WCSH Portland, Maine, which posted staggering 56 and 40 household shares in February at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., respectively, and took 11 p.m. news despite coming in fourth in primetime (“We only beat The CW,” laments President/General Manager Steve Thaxton), has increased the station's news output to 40 hours a week—well ahead of the runner-up's 25, says Thaxton. Belo's duopoly in Seattle has stepped up its promotion of a 10 p.m. news on independent KONG in an effort to siphon primetime viewers from the competition. For KCRA Sacramento, adding morning news on a sister MyNetworkTV station was a way to “extend our brand in a meaningful way,” says President/General Manager Elliott Troshinsky.

WTMJ raised hackles with the network, says Wexler, when it expanded Green Bay Packers coverage into prime: “The network wasn't loving me, but the market responded real well.”

Indeed, several NBC stations are also ramping up the production of non-news programming. WTMJ has seen ratings growth with its year-old Morning Blend, WCSH's 207 trails only Wheel of Fortune at 7 p.m. in Portland, and WSAZ continues to score with its University of Kentucky football and basketball package.

KSDK St. Louis, which grabbed every news race in February, signed on for 22 St. Louis Cardinals games this season. “The philosophy and strategic plan of our station is to be more in control of our own destiny by creating new promotional platforms,” says President/General Manager Lynn Beall.

Enhanced digital attack

Stations are also minimizing the effect of prime by recasting themselves as more than merely a channel on viewers' dials. Last fall, NBC renamed its station group the NBC Local Media Division, sending that very message. KING Seattle, which grabbed a Murrow Award for best broadcast Website last year, does not mention its NBC affiliation on the home page, but does promote eight station blogs (President/General Manager Ray Heacox explains that “almost all of the site is dedicated to very, very local content”). WBIR Knoxville plays up its five-channel approach: Broadcast, a cable news channel, Weather Plus, the Web and mobile.

Rhode Island powerhouse WJAR Providence, meanwhile, has been tapping new technology to send breaking news updates to digital billboards, a far cry from the traditional static image of the anchor team on the billboard. “There are ways to monetize [content] in ways other than primetime,” says WJAR President/General Manager Lisa Churchville. “We're now a continuous newsroom. We see ourselves as a portfolio, not just Channel 10.”

Building on the success of, which posted 25 million page views in February, Beall has extended KSDK's reach with Websites like the local St. Louis search engine AskArchy, and will court the younger demo with a Metro Mix-branded local entertainment site. The station also developed an “Information Center” to better distribute news to its platforms. Beall, too, sees KSDK not merely as a station, but a “news and information company.”

Don't change a thing

As much as the rocking NBC affiliates are tweaking their game plan to work through a down cycle in prime, many emphasize the importance of simply staying the course until the network unearths some ratings gems. (NBC's Eck says affiliates recognize the cyclical nature of the network business.) Consultants say stations can suffer when they attempt to remake the brand based on a ratings slump.

“Stations get into the deepest trouble when they overreact, and depart from the core values that have been the heart of what people know and love about the station,” Northcott says. “I don't care if it's an NBC, an ABC, a CBS—a great television station is always a great television station.”

WTHR's Tellus, for one, doesn't appear to be jumping to a rival station anytime soon. “We love our affiliation,” he says. “We're just going to keep doing what we're doing.”

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, the L.A. Times and New York magazine.