TUCSON, ARIZ.: Desert Derby

No fewer than three stations hold legitimate claims to the bragging rights in Tucson. Cordillera-owned KVOA, Journal Broadcast Group's KGUN and Raycom's KOLD finished in a virtual tie at 5 p.m. KOLD eked out the win in late news, and grabbed the primetime crown, too. Mornings were tight as well: KGUN was just ahead of KOLD at 5 a.m., while KVOA won at 6.

“You could throw a blanket on the three of us in any given book,” says KOLD VP/General Manager Jim Arnold, “and have us all covered.”

Tucson is home to the University of Arizona and defense giant Raytheon, which employs some 11,000 in the area. It was also home to the mortgage monolith First Magnus, which filed for Chapter 11 in August. Magnus' implosion is emblematic of how hard Tucson has been hit by the nation's lending debacle, which has in turn slammed vital TV advertisers like automotive, furniture and carpeting. “I think 2008's going to be a tough year for retail,” says Arnold. “Thank God for political.”

What's helping Tucson are extraordinary population growth (the market gained 95,000 people from 2001 to 2006), stable employers like Raytheon and the university, and emerging categories like health care and biotech. While it's Nielsen's No. 68 market, Tucson clocks in at No. 59 in terms of revenue, booking $84.6 million in 2007, according to BIA Financial. Station managers describe it as an authentic slice of Southwestern living, at least compared to high-profile, cosmopolitan neighbor Phoenix. But Tucson gets its own taste of the A-list when the Accenture Match Play golf championship starts Feb. 20. “It'll be Tiger Woods and 64 of his best friends,” says KVOA President/General Manager Gary Nielsen.

NBC affiliate KVOA grabbed the lion's share of the revenue in 2006 with $24.3 million, per BIA, ahead of CBS outlet KOLD with $23.2 million and ABC affiliate KGUN with $19.2 million. Other players include Belo's Fox/MyNetworkTV duopoly, a Univision-owned station and NBC/GE's Telemundo outlet.

With so few ratings points separating them, the top stations are scrambling for the game-changing innovation. KVOA made a bold move by introducing high-definition local news last spring, along with a new set and graphics, and added an hour-long newscast at 4 p.m. in September against Oprah Winfrey and Jeopardy! The station has also ramped up online, adding a Flash player to KVOA.com and hiring new Web staff, including an Internet sales manager.

KGUN, which Journal acquired from Emmis in 2006, offers up both home improvement tips and ample advertiser tie-ins on its My Home Improvement standalone site, while KOLD recently launched employment classifieds on KOLD.com.

And while the Belo duopoly doesn't have much of a news presence, it holds its own in terms of local programming. Music Melee is a battle-of-the-bands contest where staffers and the public vote on videos submitted by the musicians. KTTU also scored one for community relations when a few hundred people turned out for its “Very Bad Birthday Party” last spring, marking the first anniversary of its Saturday night Very Bad Movie salute to cheesy flicks.

Sister KMSB has something no other station in the market has: American Idol. President/General Manager Tod Smith says a few local folk have been invited to Hollywood in the new edition, and hopes one might follow Arizona native Jordin Sparks as champ. “Just when you think Idol can't possibly continue [its success],” he says, “it seems to find new life.”

Next: Miami, FL

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.