A Tangle in Texas

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Houston stations will be getting an infusion of new blood in the weeks and months ahead. KPRC VP/General Manager Larry Blackerby shifted to Indianapolis to run WRTV at the beginning of the year; Post-Newsweek had not announced his successor at press time. Nor had KHOU picked the person to follow executive news director Keith Connors, who like Blackerby is now in the Hoosier State after taking over the newsroom at WTHR on Jan. 12.

Given KHOU’s hard-news chops, Connors’ replacement will be a key hire for the Belo station. “Our investigative work is second to none,” says Susan McEldoon, KHOU president/GM. “It’s what viewers expect from us.”

Indeed, robust and journalistically sound local news has been a cornerstone of KHOU’s emergence; McEldoon defines the brand as “telling important stories that need to be told.” The CBS affiliate needs to be on top of its game to compete with ABC-owned KTRK, and it’s been doing just that.

The stations are in a slugfest. KTRK took the morning and early-evening news races in the November sweeps and won total-day household ratings by a slim margin. KTRK also grabbed primetime on the back of CBS’ rocking network schedule. KHOU took the late news race in households, its 7.3 rating/ 14 share ahead of KTRK’s 6.2/11. But KTRK won the adults 25-54 race at 10 p.m.

KHOU and KTRK have increased their revenue share over the last few years, at the expense of other area stations. The two leaders were within a percentage point of each other in revenue share for 2009, the last year for which BIA/Kelsey has breakdowns. KHOU was slightly ahead.

Rounding out the No. 10 DMA are the Fox-owned duopoly KRIV–KTXH, Tribune’s CW affiliate KIAH and Post-Newsweek’s NBC affiliate KPRC. According to BIA/ Kelsey, 34% of the population in Houston is of Hispanic origin, and there’s a host of Spanish-language options on the dial. Among them, Univision owns KXLN and KFTH, Telemundo owns KTMD and Liberman Broadcasting has Estrella TV affiliate KZJL.

KXLN, or “Univision 45”, is well-established in the market, claiming around 10% of the revenue with strong showings in 5 and 10 p.m. news. It marks its 35th anniversary this year. Univision also owns five local radio stations, including “Estereo Latino” (Regional Mexican) outlet KLTN. Comcast is the martket’s top subscription-TV operator.

Stations are shaking things up in an effort to get ahead. KRIV launched a 4 a.m. news last April and moved TMZ to 6 p.m. the second week of January, pushing The Office to late fringe. “We think there’s a nice fit there,” says D’Artagnan Bebel, KRIV–KTXH VP and general manager.

KIAH had aimed to launch its much ballyhooed News- Fix program in January, an unorthodox news format that does not feature an anchor on the set. The launch date now looks like February, and parent Tribune will be watching the show carefully.

Roger Bare, KIAH VP/GM, did not return calls seeking comment. But a few months ago, Lee Abrams, then Tribune’s chief innovation officer, told the Houston Chronicle something needed to be done to shake up news in Houston— and elsewhere. “There are too many stations with established news programming, heritage and resources to compete effectively by presenting essentially the same format,” Abrams told Chronicle reporter David Barron. “[The] time seems to be right to leave the traditional approach to those who do it best and try something very different.”

KHOU has a big decision to make as to what to do when Oprah Winfrey departs broadcast TV this fall. McEldoon has hinted that the solution might be a mix of local news and an acquired program to fill the vital 60-minute lead-in to early-evening news. “It could be a combination,” she says. “We’re discussing several options.”

KTRK is, like many other area broadcasters, deploying an ambitious digital agenda. The station produces the women’s lifestyle and fashion program Mirror/Mirror for the ABC owned group’s Live Well Network, and also features local high school sports on the digital tier. KTRK was first out of the box in the market with an iPad app in the iTunes store, offering tablet users breaking news, weather and sports on the go. “Our news app offers quick and easy access to our online news content,” a KTRK spokesperson notes.

KPRC, meanwhile, blankets the weather category with its JustWeather.com microsite. In 2010, the station displayed its investigative chops with a year-long “Operation Price Check” report, which focused on a local grocery store that was repeatedly failing to deliver advertised discounts to customers.

Houston’s economy is holding up well. The market escaped the last hurricane season in one piece, and winter has so far been mostly temperate. Houston is of course the oil industry’s home base, and that business tends to keep the region insulated when much of the rest of the country is feeling downward pressure. “Things are healthy,” says McEldoon. “I think Houston is doing better than much of the country—it tends to buck the [economic] trends.”

That translates well to local television. General managers say automotive, telecommunications and movie advertising are all up, filling much of the gap vacated by political advertising late last year. “It’s on an upswing,” says Bebel. “Overall, the market is rebounding.”

E-mail comments to mmalone@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @StationBiz

Michael Malone

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.