WKPT Tri-Cities Forced Out of Local TV News Business After Losing ABC Affiliation

In a year likely defined by consolidation in the local TV world, with more power going to the biggest station groups, WKPT is the first casualty.

Holston Valley Broadcasting’s Tri-Cities (DMA No. 97) station, licensed to Kingsport, Tenn., is losing its ABC affiliation at the end of the month. Media General, which already owns and operates CBS affiliate WJHL, snagged the affiliation and will launch ABC Tri-Cities on Feb. 1, operating out of Johnson City, Tenn.

WKPT, an ABC affiliate for more than 46 years, is forced to cancel its local news broadcasts and leave the local TV business. 

ABC declined to comment.

George DeVault, general manager of WKPT and president of Holston Valley Broadcasting, said they had no choice. Retransmission consent fees, which make up nearly half of the station’s revenue, pay expenses, fund the news department and provide a modest profit for WKPT despite half of the retrans money going back to ABC. With no ABC affiliation, the station won’t have that money to continue producing news, which it brought back in 2013. WKPT, the first digital TV station in state of Tennessee, had aired local news from its birth in 1969 until 2002.

DeVault said that about half of the 50-person staff, including the entire news department, will lose their jobs. He led a tearful staff meeting on Monday. “Whether they are losing their job or not, in a small company like ours, we’re all family,” he said. “Many of our people have been here for 30 or 40 years.”

The current plan is to move MyNetworkTV programming from sister station WAPK over to WKPT, though MyNetworkTV only produces about 10 hours of programming, DeVault said. They will also move over their best syndicated content to WKPT.

Negotiations between the station and ABC for a new contract, which was to end on New Year’s Eve at midnight, began at the start of October. DeVault expected the deliberations to go similar to the way they went five years ago: “They start with a very high figure and we would succeed in getting it down a considerable amount.” That would not be the case this time around.

ABC opened with a “humongous ask” of a minimum of $15 million, DeVault said. “We considered it a monstrously high figure.” The station countered with a lower figure — which ABC turned down — then another offer and another offer. Finally, in mid December, the station acquiesced to the initial figure, but ABC’s “tune immediately changed,” DeVault said. They got a response a few days later: ABC wanted to look into alternatives.

“It wasn’t until then that I began to feel there was a serious threat we would lose the affiliation,” DeVault said.

There was still no deal in place 48 hours before the ball was set to drop — whereby WKPT would lose the affiliation and the New Year’s celebration would abruptly cut to an Andy Griffith Show marathon. That programming note elicited a response from ABC: The affiliation was going to WJHL.

The two parties agreed to extend the affiliation for another month, but WKPT’s affiliation hopes were dead.

“We can bargain and threaten a cable or satellite company to pull our signal, but we’re only one station in market 97,” DeVault said.

Retrans money is so crucial, and small station groups just can’t compete with the giants like Media General, which operates 71 stations in 48 markets (and it looks like many more soon), at the negotiating table.

“The power is with the big guys. I don’t see a rosy future for small family-owned television stations,” DeVault said. “I hate to say it, I think we’re moving in that direction faster than I thought we would.”

In today’s consolidated industry, stations from small or independent groups that fare the best are the ones that are No. 1 in the market, and unfortunately for WKPT, it had only recently returned to producing local news.

DeVault said they plan to file a petition to change FCC rules. Currently, FCC rules prohibit one owner from owning two of the top four rated stations in a given market, but nothing preventing one station from having two of the four major networks. DeVault is calling on other small stations and groups in similar situations to comment and lobby in their favor.