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Adventures in TV Land

Port Folio Weekly Cover Story August 11-17 1998
Adventures in TV Land
Tom Anthony

There are five big TV sets in the office of Ed Munson, the President and General Manager of WAVY TV 10. They are installed right in the wall so that just the screens show. On the top are two sets side-by-side with WVEC – channel 13, and WTKR – channel 3 – blinking out at the world. Just below are monitors showing WAVY – channel 10, WVBT – channel 43, and the Local Weather Station – or LWS, which originates from the channel ten studios but is not a true broadcast. Like LNC, which is the WVEC and Virginian-Pilot Local News Channel, it’s “cable cast” to something like 400,000 Hampton Roads homes over Cox and Falcon cable. All at once the three sets in the bottom row flicker to the same image. WAVY weatherman Don Slater is looking a bit panicked over something. “Wow. This doesn’t happen very often. ” Munson comments. It becomes obvious by watching the Super Doppler Radar that a fairly serious thunderstorm is forming over sections of Hampton and Newport News. “This is great – this is a great public service!” Munson says, excited now. “We’re really glad we can do this, and we’re the only ones in town who can.”

The FCC does not allow the same company to own more than one television station in any one market. So how is LIN Television (WAVY’s parent company) able to put the same signal on three different channels? “The only way we can do business in more than one place at the same time is by cable-cast which would include LWS. . . and (in the case of WVBT) by what’s called a licensed marketing agreement . . . or an LMA, which is the arrangement we have with a company called Beach 43. They own WVBT channel 43.” explains Munson. Hold it, let’s recap. We have LNC, for local news, and LWS for local weather and now channel 10 can run a second broadcast station with an LMA? Well one thing is certain, the television landscape in Hampton Roads is changing. Big Time.

WAVY been running channel 43 for the past three years, so that’s not news. But right now the local NBC affiliate is stirring up as much hoopla as possible to point out a big change. WTVZ, Channel 33 is losing its network affiliation with Fox. WVBT will begin airing Fox programming and drop its current affiliation with the Warner Brothers “WB” starting August 31. In fact the stations are swapping, since WTVZ picks up the WB on the same date. Add to the mix a new player entirely with Pax TV, premiering on the same day on channel 49. All this is scheduled one day before the traditional beginning of the new fall season for the three traditional networks and fellow upstart UPN carried locally by Portsmouth based WGNT. Most local television broadcasters agree that the situation will be confusing to viewers at best. But how do you get a handle on these changes?

Let’s start with a little background. “Previous to what we did at WVBT, channel 43 was operating literally on a shoestring. They were broadcasting home shopping programming. So we said, hey! We would like to program your TV station and sell ads. We’ll pay you for it. We’ll invest in the infra structure – with the antenna and the broadcast equipment.” Munson relates. “Back in 1995 we struck an LMA deal. It’s kind of like subletting your condo. You’re still the owner, but the new tenant does all the decorating. We’re the new tenants. So we affiliated with the new network at that time, the WB from Warner Brothers. In addition to the programming from the network which was limited… we bought a lot of old movies and cartoons.” Munson explained.

A few days from now that all changes. The how and why is somewhat disputed. The way Munson tells it, the switch has everything to do with a new local news broadcast. “Fox is owned by Rupert Murdock. Rupert Murdock wants all of the Fox affiliates to feature local news… but apparently that was something (channel 33 parent company) Sinclair (Broadcast Group) was not prepared to do.” Munson says. “So we approached Fox and said… hey if negotiations with WTVZ break down, and you are looking for an outlet in the Hampton Roads market, we would love to do news.” Munson adds. But according to Scott Sanders, General Manager of WTVZ, that’s not exactly how it all came down. “It was a high level feud between the head of Sinclair Television at that time, and Rupert Murdock. But that’s old history. Let’s talk about what’s happening on August 31st. ” Sanders is anxious to get the other side of the story out.

“Believe me this has nothing to do with weather or not we wanted to do a ten o’clock news cast. There were a lot of variables. When I first got here I thought about the news – so did Sinclair. We’re one of the biggest broadcast companies in the country, so we could definitely do what it takes for a first class news operation. I think there is more than enough local news in this market and for us to throw up yet another newscast…” Sanders says. “Look, what we’re really talking about here is two hours of programming a day. And there are much larger issues than just the network affiliation.” Saunders is right in this respect; the change will be confusing for precisely the reason he gives in positioning the network switcheroo as one factor in many.

The way channel 13 General Manager Mario Hewitt sees it, it will have a lot more to do with channel position and sports than the 10 o’clock news. “Of course there’s football… and people who want to watch Redskins football are going to have to go there (channel 43)… going to have to find it.” Hewitt points out. And Sanders agrees on that issue. “O.K. we are going to miss sports.” he admits. In fact, Fox is a heavy hitter this year with the World Series, NFL National Football Conference games and the Super Bowl. The football deal with Fox is really lucky for LIN since NBC/WAVY lost AFC football to CBS/WTKR last year. “I think that it’s going to create some guessing in the immediate future.” Hewitt warns. “I think that trying to find your favorite Fox programs is going to take some work. I think that the WB, obviously with channel position (channel 2 on cable, 33 broadcast), both on cable on the air will offer viewers an opportunity to get to them before they find where Fox is going to be which is 43 – both on the air and over the (cable) system.” Hewitt explains. That channel position factor is one issue. Another is heritage, or how long one station has been on the air compared to another.

In that respect channel 33 has quite a bit of an edge. They’ve been on the air since 1979. Just three years ago channel 43 was a home shopping channel. Before that, it was just static. Sinclair Broadcast Group is the nations third largest television broadcaster, with 56 TV stations in 36 markets reaching a little more than 22% of all U.S. television households. They have affiliations with ABC, CBS, NBC, UPN, Fox and the WB.

According to Saunders in markets where Sinclair owns WB stations they are doing really well. “The idea that Fox programming is better or worse than Warner Brothers is far from the point. Both networks have great shows. Because of how well established we are and how new (channel 43) they are, I think it will be easier for us to have a great run with the WB. Picking up Fox does not mean they are picking up the audience we have waiting for the next program when 7:58(p.m.) rolls around.” according to Saunders.

Again channel 13 Manager Hewitt agrees. “The strength of WTVZ’s programs outside of the Fox line up is what drove the strength of Fox in this market. I think (W)TVZ had a strong line up from four o’clock until eight o’clock which viewers got into the habit of viewing and therefore went straight into Fox. Especially younger viewers. I think That (W)VBT will have a bit of a problem matching that kind of environment around Fox.” Those programs which fall outside of network programming can be one of only two other categories. Either it’s local, like the local news, or it’s syndication.

Syndication comes in two basic flavors. Re-runs and first run. Channel 13’s Oprah, Wheel Of Fortune and Jeopardy! are among the most watched first-run shows. They are all priced on a scale that reflects the popularity of the programs across the country. Oprah, for example is a lot more expensive than say channel 10’s Howie Mandell. Similarly, re-runs are priced on popularity as well. An old episode of channel 43’s Hogan’s Heroes is far less costly than Friends which channel 33 adds to it’s line up this year. “That’s were we’re really going to shine.” says WTVZ manager Scott Sanders. In our case we went out and purchased some major syndication. Shows like Fraiser and Living Single among others. Next year we pick up Friends and ER. In ’99 we add Drew Carey, 3rd rock and some other heavy hitters.” Saunders explains.

Channel 13’s Hewitt also talks about syndication as a key local television success. “Our goal right now is understanding the market place… there are many, many choices and forget about the alternative media choices coming around but let’s just talk about television choices… There are enough choices in this market that if you don’t do what is necessary to grow your audience and attract new audience – you’re going to get left behind. Our goal is to go out there and do the things that can not only save and maintain the audience that we do have, but to attract a newer younger audience, and I think we can do that.” Hewitt points out some differences between the local ABC affiliate and the other stations. This new season we’re bringing back a first run version of Hollywood Squares and the other program Roseanne – which is different, but it’s still in the vein of live or first run programming that we’ve been doing. We have to maintain a correlation between (these shows and) the programming that we’ve been known to do and continue to do those.”

Getting back to the last day of August. It will be the first day for Fox, a local 10 o’clock news and some big time sports programming on channel 43. It will be the first day for the WB to have a significantly better cable position as channel 2 on Cox and a slightly better broadcast position on channel 33. It will be the first day of family oriented network programming from Pax TV on channel 49. It will be confusing to most. Good luck, and happy viewing!