Original Slate Kickstarts Tiny Maine Duopoly

Whether they are cutting ties with their network or slashing syndication costs, stations all over the country are taking steps to increase their local programming output. And they may have a role model in tiny WPME-WPXT in Portland, Me., which has no fewer than 10 original shows, none of them newscasts, on the air or slated to debut in the coming months. The lineup includes quiz shows and programs about cooking, travel, sports and real estate, among others—all in HD. They’re quirky and offbeat and sponsor-driven, and are generated by a combined station staff of around 25—specifically by a creative services department of five.

“We are a factory,” Doug Finck, WPMEWPXT general manager, says with a laugh. “But if you have the right people who understand what to do, you’re not birthing an elephant to do this.”

WPME-WPXT is a small player in DMA No. 78, which is dominated by Gannett’s WCSH and strong competitors owned by Hearst TV and Sinclair, among others. MPS Media owns WPME, a MyNetworkTV affiliate, and New Age owns WPXT, a CW affiliate; the two stations operate under a joint sales agreement.

The eight shows currently on the air include Kickstart, which sees eighthgraders compete in a range of intellectual competitions in hopes of staving off a life-sized “Rabid Chicken” that blasts the loser with whipped cream. Silly stuff aside, the winner receives a $5,000 scholarship in a region where keeping children on an educational path is a challenge.

That appeals to advertisers, including Sanford Institution for Savings. “It’s a great way to sponsor something that’s doing great things for kids,” says Deb Mullen, marketing director for the bank chain. “The show gets local Maine kids to start thinking about college.”

Other programs include the comfort food travelogue Meal to Meal, the athletic competition Maine’s Best High School Athlete, the Unpluggedesque performance program Private Stage and real estate program Simon Says. Every show is launched on the backs of advertisers that either get branded integration segments or sponsorship billing.

As broadcast network shows fall by the wayside, the unique model represents a low-risk way to hatch—and sustain—a program. “Nothing launches without being profitable,” says Finck. “We’re not rolling the dice here.”

WPME-WPXT’s scheduling approach is as offbeat as the shows. Programs do not air in the same time slot, or on the same day, or even necessarily on the same channel. Finck calls it a “roadblock” approach: sprinkling the programs all over the schedule, he believes, gets them viewed by a greater range of viewers. Ratings are modest (“point-this and point-that,” he says), but it’s almost beside the point.

While it’s pay to play, Finck says the shows must be entertainment first. “Our goal is to get information about local businesses and tell the story in an interesting way,” he says. “There’s no hawking involved.”

The two stations booked around $1.3 million in revenue apiece last year, according to BIA/Kelsey. They do not air news, but Finck hopes to add a morning newscast by the end of the year. WPME-WPXT keeps its portfolio varied by producing a large slate of half-hour infomercials for local vendors, including Maine Visitors Channel, tourist-targeted content broadcast over the air in 22 local hotels, and a Me-TV subchannel.

A program about a demented chicken or Portland’s best meatloaf may not be much of a threat to the competition, but some managers around town see a lesson in WPME-WPXT’s homespun efforts. “Somebody’s going to come up with something oldschool and local that works,” says one rival who asked not to be named. “I do love the concept.”

So do the advertisers, it appears. Mullen says Sanford Institution has received a healthy return on its investment in WPME-WPXT. “We get a lot of feedback,” she says. “I can’t tell you how many people say, ‘I saw you on Simon Says.’”

E-mail comments to mmalone@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @BCMikeMalone

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.