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Ray of Hope

As it does every June, hurricane season has arrived in Tampa-St. Petersburg-Sarasota, and stations are gearing up their weather coverage. At WFTS, that means the latest edition of the annual AccuWeather Guide, featuring evacuation routes and severe-weather information, that's distributed for free around the market. WTVT, the market leader, boasts five AMS-certified meteorologists and a brand-new microsite.

WTVT management also likes the position it's in for other forms of breaking news. “We have the reporters and anchors with the most experience, and in many cases the most longevity in the market,” says VP/News Director Michael McClain. “That helps them deliver stories with perspective. When big stories break, people turn to us.”

They certainly seem to be. The Fox O&O took the morning news crown in the May sweeps, and won late news with an 8.3 rating/13 share at 10 p.m. McClain is closing in on a year at WTVT; VP/General Manager Bill Schneider started just a few weeks ago. For Schneider, it's a chance to return to his native Southeast and crank out lots of news; he says WTVT produces 52½ hours a week, way more than anyone else in the market.

Tourism, health care, retail and call centers are major industries in Tampa-St. Pete. The market has been crushed by the mortgage crisis, the local economy appears stalled and hurricane season is always daunting.

But station executives cite several reasons to be excited. The discount grocery retailer ALDI plans several stores in the area, which means incumbent chain Publix will have to step up marketing to stay strong in its home market. Scandinavian furniture chain Ikea is opening up a store in 2009. And with its hotly contested 27 delegates, the presidential money will start pouring into Florida soon.

And let's not forget the Rays of Major League Baseball. A laughingstock since its inception in 1998, playing in a largely empty Tropicana Field, the team is competing for first place and averaging more than 20,000 fans per game—up from 14,000 at this point last year. “The Rays are good, and fans are starting to turn out for the games,” says WFTS General Sales Manager Sarah Tyrrell.

Games air primarily on FSN Florida and Ion affiliate WXPX. An FSN spokesperson says Rays ratings are up 31% over last year, while a WXPX rep says they're “up a lot.”

The No. 13 DMA, which switched to Local People Meters last fall, took in $361 million in 2007, according to BIA Financial. WTVT led with $92.68 million, besting Media General's NBC outlet WFLA ($80.35), Gannett's CBS affiliate WTSP ($60.4 million) and Scripps' ABC outlet WFTS ($47.7 million). Other players include Sinclair's MyNetworkTV station WTTA and the CBS-owned CW affiliate WTOG. Schneider isn't the only new general manager in town; former WTHR Indianapolis boss Rich Pegram recently moved to the top spot at WFTS.

Just a few ratings points separate the Big Four in several news slots. While WTVT wins mornings, WFLA took evening news and the 11 p.m. slot.

WTOG, meanwhile, plays up its no-news angle—finding success with Two and a Half Men, King of Queens and The Simpsons between 6 and 8 p.m. The station has its 40th birthday in November. Says Station Manager Laura Caruso, “When we turn 80, I'm sure we'll still be here, entertaining the public.”

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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.