While they’re dogged competitors most of the time, the news-producing stations in Tampa-St. Petersburg, Florida, are working together to get through the coronavirus pandemic. Stations in DMA No. 12 have shared a helicopter in the past, but this time they are sending just one photographer to a press event, not four or five, and sharing the content.
“Everyone is focused on the safety of our crews,” said Jeff Maloney, WTVT senior VP and general manager. “This is useful to cover things that everyone goes to.”
Managers of the Tampa-St. Petersburg stations estimated that 50-80% of staffers were working from home in mid-April amidst the pandemic. They are isolating news teams that do come into the station and using every square inch of their facilities to keep people distanced at work. “We’re able to space people out pretty effectively,” said Mark Higgins, VP and general manager of WFLA-WTTA, about his four-floor facility.
Higgins, who moved into the market in October 2019, also mentioned “backup everything” at WFLA: spare control room, assignment desk, studio.
The market was humming along until this “cold slap in the face,” according to Higgins. Real estate was rocking, tourism was lively and Florida, of course, presents itself as a battleground state for presidential hopefuls every four years. “It was going to be a very solid year,” Maloney said. “Now, we’re cautious.”
Fox owns market leader WTVT. Nexstar Media Group has NBC outlet WFLA and MyNetworkTV station WTTA. Scripps owns ABC-aligned WFTS. Tegna has CBS affiliate WTSP and CBS owns The CW outlet WTOG. NBCUniversal has the Telemundo station, WRMD, and Entravision holds the Univision affiliate, WVEA.
Spectrum is the primary pay TV operator and its Bay News 9 does around-the-clock news.
It was February 2018 when NBCUniversal acquired ZGS Communications, which gave it WRMD. Rebranded Telemundo 49, the station added 5 and 5:30 p.m. news, installed public affairs program Enfoque and hired 20 staffers. “It’s been a huge change out of the gate,” said Jayme Neto, WRMD president and general manager. “We’re a much, much stronger station.”
WRMD has also been doing 6 and 11 p.m. daily news with the pandemic going on. “We have to wait and see — that may just continue,” Neto said.
The Spanish-language population is growing. On April 23, WFLA debuted TampaHoy.com, providing content to Spanish speakers. “We have to do a better job of serving that community, and we will,” Higgins said.
WTOG debuted 10 p.m. news in March. It is produced in Miami, while WTOG has two multimedia journalists cranking out local fare. “We’re getting really good feedback,” Michelle Calachino, VP and general manager, said. “It’s evident that viewers are finding us.”
The station has added news clips to its website to expanse its local presence.
WTVT is a ratings giant. In March, the station took 6 a.m. news, the noon derby and the 5 and 6 p.m. races in viewers 25-54. Its late news starts at 10, and at 11, WTVT did a 1.7 in viewers 25-54, ahead of WFLA’s 0.8, WFTS’s 0.7 and WTSP’s 0.6. In households, WFLA got a 2.6 rating, WTVT a 2.5, WFTS a 2.3 and WTSP a 2.0.
When the news gets rough, such as what’s going on now, viewers turn to Fox 13 even more, according to WTVT VP/news director John Hoffman. “When it’s hurricanes or other big news, we take these big leaps forward,” he said.
There’s plenty to like about Tampa-St. Pete, including new arrivals Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, who have joined the Buccaneers. Multiple GMs describe the market as one that is booming, but does not feel like a massive metropolis. “It’s the largest TV market in Florida,” Maloney said, “but it always feels like a small town to me.”
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