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From Top Dog to Underdog

It will be three years this summer since Post-Newsweek's WJXT Jacksonville, Fla., daringly abandoned its long-standing CBS affiliation to go it alone as an independent, one of just a handful left nationwide. Its path has been rocky. For an independent to thrive in the cutthroat local-TV business takes a steadfast commitment and deep pockets. But Post-Newsweek is determined to make WJXT a success story.

“We will end up profitable and totally in control of our own destiny,” says Post-Newsweek President and CEO Alan Frank, one of the architects of the move.

As a CBS affiliate, WJXT ranked as one of the network's top-rated stations. But in July 2002, the station cut its network ties after a tug-of-war over network compensation. CBS offered WJXT payments similar to other affiliates', but Post-Newsweek balked, thinking its ratings in the market made it worth more.

“It was not our first choice to go independent,” Frank says. “But we were offered a business plan that was disheartening and embarrassing.”

Usually when networks make those kinds of offers, stations consider the alternative, then swallow hard and agree to terms. Frank's decision, in a way, says something about the man: He'll walk away rather than blink.

So, suddenly, in July 2002, WJXT—once the market heavyweight—became the scrappy underdog.

Frank spearheaded the indie effort and was backed by Washington Post Co. Chairman Don Graham and board members Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway; Barry Diller, chairman of InterActive Corp.; and former Capital Cities/ABC CEO Dan Burke, all of them seasoned in the broadcast business. “We felt the superior performance of the station deserved more,” says Graham.

Without network fare, though, WJXT had countless hours to fill. The station beefed up local news to eight hours a day and stockpiled top syndicated shows, like The Oprah Winfrey Show, Dr. Phil and Everybody Loves Raymond. In prime time, Dr. Phil and reruns of sitcoms fill the schedule.

WJXT is also dabbling in original programming, like the monthly Eye on Crime, a series produced with the sheriff's department. Frank also hit on the idea of WJXT creating a local version of American Idol, called Gimme the Mike, sponsored by General Motors. Sister stations KPRC Houston and WPLG Miami expressed interest too and Post-Newsweek ended up selling the format to 32 other stations.

Still the station's strength, Frank says, is that it is Jacksonville-centric. It even calls itself “The local station.”

Struggling Back

Maybe so. But losing CBS programming hurt, particularly in prime time. Confused viewers migrated over to the new CBS affiliate, Clear Channel's WTEV. The Post-Newsweek station went from being the first-place station to No. 2 or No. 3, and ad sales suffered. In fact, WJXT runs its fair share of infomercials, which bring in dollars and fill time but also carry a stigma.

“The first year was very rough,” says Graham, and it has taken a while to rebound. The company does not disclose financials for its individual stations, but executives predict WJXT will be close to its pre-2002 revenue levels by next year. Graham says he is now pleased with the station's ratings and financial performance.

In nearly the same time frame in San Francisco, Young Broadcasting's KRON went through a similar transformation.

Formerly the powerful NBC affiliate, KRON turned independent in 2001 after its own, much nastier compensation fallout with the network. But it is struggling. In the recent February sweeps, KRON finished fifth in morning, early-evening and late news.

Fortunately for WJXT, newscasts are holding up reasonably well. Its four-hour morning show is hyper-local and regularly beats network news shows Today, Good Morning America and The Early Show in the 7-9 a.m. period, an indication that local can often trump national. It wins local news at 5 and 6 p.m. and often places second at 6:30, behind NBC's Nightly News.

Covering National Stories, too

But just covering the news is more difficult. Affiliate stations turn to their national network for footage and coverage of big events. Even Fox stations can take a national feed from Fox News Channel. But, as an independent station, WJXT goes it alone.

Big news events and breaking news are challenging. To cover Election Night last fall, WJXT needed to encompass the presidential race, as well as state and local contests, on its own.

“We had to use our own anchors to cover everything, and we have to book our own guests,” says VP/GM Larry Blackerby, who joined in October 2003 from KMIR Palm Springs, Calif. “It took a tremendous amount of planning.”

The station does get help on newsgathering from CNN's affiliate service, NewsSource, and its corporate cousins in The Washington Post Co.

On Election Night, it held its own, finishing second in prime time ratings behind NBC affiliate WTLV, an impressive showing for an independent.

As the station gets its footing, Post-Newsweek keeps backing it. WJXT has bought new cycles of Everybody Loves Raymond, Oprah and Dr. Phil, and the station plans to increase its local programming. It will be a slow build, Blackerby says, but “the key is to know we can compete.”