Sunny Days on the Gulf

Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota, Fla., may be bracing for another nasty hurricane season, but local stations see clear skies ahead.

The 13th-largest TV market has been perceived as a “retirement market,” says WFLA General Manager Eric Land, “but it is vibrant and growing.” This year, the population is expected to grow 2.2%, double the national average.

In 2004, Tampa Bay stations nabbed $352.9 million in gross revenue, according to BIA Financial, including $40 million from political advertising. BIA stats say WFLA was the top earner, with $88.1 million in revenue.

Local broadcasters reflect the region’s diverse population. In addition to the English-language–network affiliates, Tampa Bay’s media include three Spanish-language outlets, cable news network Bay News 9 and indie WMOR. There are even two ABC affils, WFTS Tampa and WWSB Sarasota.

Several affiliation swaps rocked the market in 1994. WTVT switched from CBS to Fox. WTSP converted to CBS from ABC. (When it was still an ABC affiliate, WTSP’s signal did not stretch to the southern part of the market, which is why Sarasota has WWSB.) Scripps-Howard started its Tampa ABC affiliate WFTS, which can reach the whole market. On cable systems—Bright House serves Tampa, and Comcast operates in Sarasota—most subscribers get either WFTS or WWSB. But DBS providers EchoStar and DirecTV offer only WFTS. This creates a marketing challenge, particularly for WWSB, says station Creative Services Director Ed Tudor: “We have to educate viewers we’re the local station for Sarasota.”

Last summer, Tampa Bay weathered four hurricanes but suffered little damage. No stations were damaged, but coverage “was an exhaustive effort for six weeks,” says WTVT General Manager Bob Linger.

WFLA, the NBC affiliate, is the leader in overall ratings, early-evening and late news. It shares a facility with Media General sibling newspaper The Tampa Tribune.

Its main rival is Fox-owned WTVT, which offers eight hours of news daily, including the market’s top morning show and a well-rated 10 p.m. news. In May, the stations tied for top marks in late news, each with a 7.9 rating, although WTVT’s share was slightly higher. WTSP’s late news was third.

WFTS lags behind, but next fall, it gets the new Martha Stewart show and Ellen; in 2007, it gets Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!. Says General Manager Bill Carey, formerly of WCBS New York, “This will put us on the map in a big way.”