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Mountain Climbing

There may be a new king of the hill amidst the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains. Hearst-Argyle NBC affiliate WYFF has long been the market leader, but Media General CBS outlet WSPA had a blockbuster February book, winning total-day, prime-

time, evening-news and late-news ratings. WYFF held the news crown for years, but WSPA wears it now.

“It's the first time we've ever won at 5:30, 6 and 11 in households,” enthuses VP/General Manager Phil Lane. “It's terrific.”

Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C.-Asheville, N.C., is a unique market, comprising three distinct submarkets with a Big Three station in each (the Fox affiliate operates out of Greenville). Station managers say favorable mountain weather and a relatively low cost of living attract scores of retirees and vacationers, drawing both groups from Atlanta, Washington, Philadelphia and New York.

But despite the recent emergence of local auto, telecom and political advertising, the market is still suffering from a loss of jobs in the textile industry; while it's the No. 36 Nielsen market in terms of size, it's No. 43 in revenue.

The market brought in an estimated $121.1 million in 2006, according to BIA Financial. WYFF led the pack in 2005 (the last year for which such numbers are available) with $31.75 million, ahead of WSPA ($27.3 million), Sinclair's ABC affiliate WLOS ($24.275 million) and Meredith's Fox affiliate WHNS ($19.75 million). Media General owns not only WSPA but CW outlet WYCW, as well as a second CBS affiliate, WNEG, in nearby northern Georgia. Charter Communications is the market's dominant cable player.

Station managers are encouraged by the way political spending is starting to shape up for the 2008 election. WYFF President/General Manager Michael J. Hayes says he has already seen ads from presidential hopeful Mitt Romney come in, and the campaigning is looking like nothing he has seen before. “My word, the candidates are here every week,” he says. “It's earlier than it's ever been, and it's looking like one of the busiest non-election years we've had.”

Stations are looking to push both candidates and viewers to their Websites, several of which were overhauled recently. WHNS added a Flash player to its home page, which is connecting with viewers, according to VP/General Manager Guy Hempel: “We're watching the page views grow.”

Like many Fox affiliates, WHNS—February's runner-up in primetime—is seeing big gains in its 10 p.m. newscasts. Those are up 23% from a year ago, Hempel says, and the station is also finding success in morning news. “We launched four hours of morning news last April,” he says, “and we're very pleased with how it's hit the market.”

WLOS, meanwhile, believes it stands apart with its wealth of experience on the anchor desk: Area native Bob Caldwell has been with the station for 41 years; Darcel Grimes, for 26 years. The station produces MyNetworkTV affiliate WMYA's news as well, which provides the market's only local news at 6:30, when the traditional networks shift to national news.

With more two-income households and people working later, says General Manager Jack Connors, there's a hunger for local stories in that slot: “People are so busy, whether it's work or picking up the kids at basketball. This gives them the local news when they want it.”

Though reluctant to talk about WSPA's emergence, Lane says Greenville-Spartanburg-Asheville stands on good footing: “Unemployment is low, the market is healthy, and there's good growth down the road.”