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Rhode Island Market Flooding With Competition

WJAR has held the ratings crown for decades in the Providence-New Bedford market, but LIN Media’s WPRI has significant momentum, thanks to its robust Eyewitness News brand and CBS’s booming primetime. WPRI grabbed its first late-news title in 16 years in November, and won the 11 p.m. demos race in May for the first time since 1993, says President/ General Manager Jay Howell. He sees a big shift in little Rhode Island. “Our company invested in the station throughout the recession,” he says. “In the past, viewers would switch channels [from WPRI at 11]. Now, they’re not.”

Make no mistake; plenty tune in to WJAR. Media General’s NBC affiliate won the morning, early evening and total day household races in May, and its 8.0 rating/14 share in the late-news household race topped WPRI’s 7.0 rating/12 share. (General managers say great weather in May dragged down viewing levels in the No. 53 DMA.) WJAR has a huge lead in revenue; it booked $27.5 million in 2009, according to BIA/Kelsey, way ahead of WPRI’s $14.5 million. WPRI won primetime handily.

WJAR VP/General Manager Lisa Churchville says the station succeeds by virtue of a roundthe- clock approach to news, with a content center feeding the various platforms all day. “It’s much more progressive storytelling—we tell the story throughout the day,” she says. “It’s not the 30-second sound bite anymore.”

Howell also manages the Super Towers-owned Fox affiliate, WNAC, and airs MyNetworkTV on WNAC’s digital channel, which is branded MyRITV. Global Broadcasting owns the ABC affiliate, WLNE, and Four Points Media has CW affi liate WLWC; both are licensed across the border from Providence in New Bedford, Mass.

The local economy was crushed by the recession, with crippling unemployment. Massive flooding in late March, which got so severe that it closed I-95 for a few days, put a damper on the rebound. “In addition to the psychological damage it infl icted, the flooding put a lot of people out of business,” says WLNE VP/General Manager Steve Doerr. Among those knocked out, he says, were advertisers on local television.

Station executives give federal relief agency FEMA, which was blasted for its response to Hurricane Katrina, high marks for promptly assisting residents after the flooding. “FEMA put a fair amount of money into the market,” Churchville says. “Eventually, it does go to retail.”

WJAR is reaching out to local retailers for its new product-placement program, The Unreal Deal, which debuted June 26 and will air monthly until it becomes a weekly show in September. (WNAC has a popular branded integration called The Rhode Show on weekdays.) WJAR will show Unreal at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, coming out of a debut newscast (see sidebar). Local vendors, such as gyms and theaters, pay the station for airtime in coupons, which are sold to viewers. “It opens up a whole other tier of advertisers,” Churchville says.

No station airs local news in HD. WLNE is growing its news ratings with a “youthful, fresh, energized” approach, according to Doerr. WLWC debuts the Hispanic entertainment network LATV on its digital tier August 2, which VP/General Manager Tina Castano says will match up well with the CW outlet’s young viewers.

WPRI seeks to grow with more hard-hitting investigative reporting and a dogged approach to election coverage. Politics are a popular pastime in Providence, and WPRI did a strong number when six gubernatorial hopefuls debated on the air June 10. The station will feature a debate each month until November as it seeks to rule election news. “We have by far the most local content in the market,” Howell says. “The viewers have noticed—and are switching.”

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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.