Slow Grow in East Pa.

Though Wilkes-Barre–Scranton, Pa., is the 53rd-largest Nielsen market by population, covering 17 counties over nearly a quarter of the state, it dramatically underperforms for its size. The market ranks 73rd in the nation by revenue, according to BIA Financial.

That disparity is mostly due to the area's geography. Because it includes both urban and suburban areas, along with rural zones and mountain ranges, it's a difficult market to program to. In fact, the origins of cable TV can be traced to the region. Seeking to overcome weak reception due to surrounding mountains, Mahanoy City, Pa., is believed to be the country's first municipality to get cable, in 1948.

After a long economic slump, brought on by the departure of steel and other industries, the market steadied some in 2006. The government is offering tax breaks, dubbed Keystone Opportunity Zone, to entice businesses to return. The effort appears to be working, at least in Scranton. “The economy [there] has improved significantly over the past four or five years,” says Phil Condron, president of local ad agency Condron & Co.

Wilkes-Barre is slower to develop. “[It's] trying to rebound from some tough times,” according to Nexstar Broadcasting Senior VP Timothy Busch.

The market has long been dominated by ABC affiliate WNEP, owned by the New York Times Co., which late last week announced its group of nine stations would be acquired by the private-equity firm Oak Hill Partners for $575 million. (The company, which announced in September it was putting its stations up for sale, bought WNEP 21 years ago for $40 million.)

With estimated revenues of $22.4 million in 2005, according to BIA Financial, the station commands more than 40% of television revenue in the region; Condron calls it “the big gorilla in the market.”

WNEP benefitted from heated Congressional campaigns this past fall. “It was a record year for political advertising,” says station President/General Manager Lou Kirchen. “Aside from that, we still saw very nice growth on the local level.”

Not only have WNEP's award-winning newscasts been top-rated for decades, but the station also produces a half-hour 10 p.m. newscast for Fox affiliate WOLF, owned by CP Media. WNEP also produces its own programming, including Pennsylvania Outdoor Life, which has been on the air for more than two decades.

It was a busy week for this market: Nexstar also announced that Louis J. Abitabilo, former executive VP/station manager at WNEP, will become general manager for its WBRE, an NBC affiliate.

Abitabilo will also be essentially managing the area's No. 3 station, CBS affiliate WYOU. Under a shared-service agreement, news on WYOU, which is owned by Mission Broadcasting, is produced and marketed with WBRE.

Broadcasters in Wilkes-Barre–Scranton are rounded out by MPS Media's CW affiliate WSWB and WQMY, a MyNetworkTV station owned by CP Media.

In September, WYOU became the first station in the country to offer a daily interactive newscast. The 6 p.m. program seeks to engage the community, allowing viewers to sound off on stories—and suggest topics to cover—via telephone and e-mail. Although ratings are low, station executives are encouraged by the initiative.

“The traditional television model will continue to be successful, but if we are going to grow and provide greater help to our community, we need to do things differently,” says Busch, who's the acting general manager at WBRE.

“We've had more interactivity with our audience through e-mails, through direct communication with our viewers, than we've ever had in this market.