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Opportunity Knox

The beloved University of Tennessee football team may be having an off year, including an entire October without a win, but Knoxville remains as sports-mad as ever. WBXX debuted a Sunday-night sportsman’s block in September, anchored by The Outdoorsman and Outdoor News. And WVLT featured weekly primetime high school football throughout the fall with Rivalry Thursday, on its “MyVLT” multicast channel.

Paradoxically, the Volunteers’ woes on the field may have boosted the team’s ratings. “When UT is rebuilding, sometimes it impacts attendance at the stadium,” says Chris Baker, WVLT executive VP/general manager. “If anything, that increases the numbers on television.”

Gannett’s WBIR had its usual monster sweeps last May. The NBC affiliate won all of the major races except for primetime, which went to WVLT, Gray Television’s CBS outlet. WBIR posted an 8.3 household rating/14 share with its 11 p.m. news in May, well ahead of New Young Broadcasting’s WATE, which had a 5.8/10. Raycom’s Fox affiliate WTNZ was tops in 10 p.m. news.

Jeff Lee, WBIR president/GM, says the station keeps on top by staying relevant, staying local and striking just the right tone of sincerity in what he calls a “medium-sized, Southern college town. We’re ‘Straight From the Heart,’ and it’s not just a slogan. It’s how we conduct ourselves.”

WATE airs ABC programming and has a new general manager in Dan Phillippi, who took over for Gwen Kinsey in October. (Kinsey ran New Young’s stations in Knoxville and Nashville; each outlet now has its own GM.) WBXX is a CW affiliate that airs 10 p.m. news (a 12-minute program) produced by WBIR; WBXX owner Acme Communications has announced that all of its stations are for sale. WVLT airs MyNetworkTV programming—and lots of local sports—on its digital tier. “We have live programming almost every night,” Baker says, along with big-time college football on the main channel, as well as on the digital outlet when games coincide (in addition to CBS’ college grid games, WVLT has a deal to air SEC games via ESPN).

The market’s primary pay-TV operators are Comcast and Charter on the cable side, and DirecTV and DISH for satellite. Major employers include the government, UT, healthcare and aluminum manufacturer Alcoa.

Stations are hustling to get ahead. WVLT is building a new studio with an eye on a local HD launch early in 2011. Acme Executive VP John Hannon, who took over WBXX when Phillippi went across the street to WATE, has begun tapping everyday viewers to go on-air and talk up the shows they like, and the station in general. “We’ve got a nice blend of viewers and occupations that watch our onair and are on our air,” he says, mentioning police officers, students and the mayor. “Even though we’re not a major news station, it gives us a chance to be a major community station.”

WBIR and WATE both launched 4:30 a.m. newscasts Oct. 25. With New Young out of bankruptcy, WATE has some ratings momentum. “We’ve got really good people and wellknown news talent,” says Phillippi.

But WBIR has that unparalleled connection with viewers in eastern Tennessee. The station is local from 4 to 6:30 p.m., and the peculiarly titled Live at Five at Four offers a mix of news and lifestyle fare that reflects the sometimes sleepy market. “It’s what’s going on around town,” says Lee. “There’s not enough news in Knoxville to do 2½ hours of early [evening] news.”

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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.