Tulsa Blues

employed a running gag in which Chandler Bing, the Matthew Perry character, gets a new job in Tulsa, Okla. "I love Tulsa. Tulsa is Italy. Tulsa is heaven. Please don't make me go there!" he pleaded.

Chandler might have a point: The 60th-largest TV market has big problems.

For openers, ad revenue, which increased in 2001 despite the recession, has been on a downhill trajectory ever since. BIA estimates revenue declined 13% in 2003, and it isn't improving this year. The TV battlefield for ratings and revenue is effectively limited to two players: KOTV, the CBS affiliate owned by Griffin Communications, and Albritton's ABC station, KTUL, are longtime market leaders. Scripps Howard's NBC affiliate KJRH is a distant third in both local news and total-day ratings. Even ABC's moribund prime time lineup beats NBC.

KOTV produces the market's only noon newscast. KOKI, a Fox station owned by Clear Channel, offers the only 9 p.m. local news. KTUL and KOTV tied at 6 p.m. (total households) and were separated by less than a point at 10 p.m. in May, the first sweeps in which Nielsen employed meters in Tulsa. "It's been a seesaw battle," says Ron Harig, news director at KOTV. "With meters, we have to pay closer attention to lead-ins and planning promotions. It keeps it interesting."

But it hasn't kick-started the economy.

"The financial turnaround hasn't happened here," says Michael Kronley, general manager at KJRH. Tulsa lost about 25,000 jobs in 2002-03, as major employers, including American Airlines, MCI and Williams Co., laid off workers.

Some good news: Satellite provider Dish Network is opening a call center that will employ more than 1,000. Boeing is hiring 500 workers to build a wing assembly for its new 7E7 jet.

Cox is the major cable operator, covering almost half of the market's 500,000 households. Satellite penetration is growing rapidly, to 25.4% in May. Dish Network began carrying local stations last fall. DirecTV is scheduled to offer them this month.

Financial rescue for local stations may come in the form of political spots. Tulsa broadcasters are banking on a hotly contested U.S. Senate race to generate revenue this summer. But so far, presidential candidates have eschewed spending in Oklahoma. "In other markets, you see Kerry and Bush commercials in every break," Kronley says. "Not here."