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Rocky Road

Denver may be renowned as the Mile-High City, but its TV ratings are falling. In the nation's baby-boomer capital, this clean, green metropolis has a big problem: audience erosion.

In the May sweeps, the combined audience share for the 10 p.m. news at the market's top three stations fell from 46 to 42 in a year. "People aren't necessarily tuning out local news, but they have so many options," says Patti Dennis, news director at Gannett-owned KUSA, the market's top news station.

KUSA rules Denver from morning to midnight. The NBC affiliate won narrowly at 5 p.m. over McGraw-Hill's ABC station, KMGH, and at 6 p.m. over KCNC, Viacom's CBS affiliate. The late-news race was not as close, with KUSA finishing with a substantial lead over second-place KCNC. Fox O&O KDVR edged Tribune's WB affiliate, KWGN, to win the news battle at 9 p.m. UPN affiliate KTVD, owned by NewsWeb Corp., doesn't produce a local newscast.

The 18th-largest TV market is a high-tech hub and was hit hard by the industry's collapse in 2001, a year that drained the city of $30 million in ad revenue. BIA projects total revenue of $332 million this year, about the same as 2000.

"This market was one of the last hit by the ad recession, and we'll be one of the last to rebound," says Jim Zerwekh, KWGN general manager.

Politics is taking up some of the slack.

The Bush and Kerry campaigns poured more than $1 million combined into the market in May. Automakers have stepped up spending, too. Denver boasts the sixth-highest migration rate among U.S. cities and is a top destination for Hispanic professionals.

Which is why four Spanish-language stations serve the market. Entravision's KCEC, a Univision affiliate, attracts the largest audience. Hispanics comprise approximately 15% of the populace.

Denver is also the epicenter of the cable universe. But cable, like broadcast, has its woes. Only about 60% of TV households subscribe. Comcast, the major operator, just kicked off a video-on-demand service.

One boon: KUSA recently launched the nation's first news helicopter equipped with a high-definition camera, which Dennis says generates some awe-inspiring pictures. "Our backdrops are gorgeous." But will it inspire ratings?