Insiders call Prov TV market more competitive

Speaking of the local TV market, industry publication TV Newsday has a report on what it sees as an increasingly competitive landscape in the Providence area. The story is registration required, but N4N will make most of it available for the benefit of my dear readers, along with my standard disclosure (I'm an unpaid weekly guest on WPRI/WNAC-TV's Newsmakers):

For years, Providence television has long been dominated by WJAR, the NBC affiliate.


But a series of ownership changes in Rhode Island’s only market (DMA 52) over the past year and a half has some thinking that changes in the market pecking order may follow as rivals crank up the programming and propaganda.


The ownership upheaval started with WJAR itself. NBCU sold the station along with three others elsewhere to Media General for $600 million in 2006.


Then, earlier this year, Kevin O’Brien’s Global Broadcasting bought WLNE from Freedom Communications for $14 million with the promise to shake things up.


Finally, Four Points Media, backed by the Cerberus private equity firm, is purchasing WLWC from CBS as part of a four-station, $185 million deal and is already operating the CW affiliate under a local marketing agreement as it awaits the closing. (The FCC approved the Four Points’ acquisition just last week.)


The market’s other major player is hometown LIN Television. It owns the CBS affiliate, WPRI, and runs the Fox affiliate, WNAC, under an LMA.


“Back in the '70s, this was a one-station market and channel 10 [WJAR] was the standard against which everyone else measured,” says Ed Valenti, a partner in the Providence-based ad agency PriMedia, whose decades-long career in the market included a stint as WJAR’s regional sales manager.

“From my perspective, that’s not the case anymore,” he says. “The competition for eyeballs is extremely keen.”


No station is more acutely aware of that than WJAR itself, whose status as a powerhouse dates back to its inception in 1949 when it debuted as RhodeIsland’s first television station.


Currently, WJAR’s stiffest competition is being posed by LIN’s CBS-Fox virtual duopoly, which, according to General Manager Jay Howell, has experienced record ratings growth following LIN’s investment of “millions and millions of dollars” on staff, including a dedicated Internet reporter; equipment such as the helicopter and radar; and sales. “We have worked hard to build this brand,” Howell says.


Lisa Churchville, WJAR’s general manager and president, says that while the station has weathered challenges over the years, the station’s legacy and life-long NBC affiliation pays off with viewers, even as revitalized competitors emerge.


And WJAR viewers won’t be jarred by the ownership change, Churchill promises.

Rather, the station in 2008 will continue to hone its newscasts, provide more content via the Web and hopefully recover some of the primetime audiences lost to competitors thanks to the upcoming summer Olympics and election coverage.


“Overall, it’s predictable, dependable and reliable,” Churchville says.


Indeed, Churchville doesn’t dispute WPRI and WNAC’s gains in viewers, particularly since WNAC is the only station in the market that offers news at 10 p.m. “The fact is that those stations combined run a lot of hours of Eyewitness News,” Churchville says.


Churchill does, however, take exception with comparing those two stations combined ratings with WJAR’s.


“You look at the news dominance and there is no question that your viewers in Rhode Island and New Bedford [Massachusetts, which is included in the market] are getting their news from NBC 10,” she says. The ratings confirm Churchville’s assertion, but also indicate that the others may be starting to gain ground at certain times.


For its 11 o’clock newscast, WJAR posted a 8.8 rating/18 share in May 2007, the same as in May 2006.


But No. 2 WPRI was able to grow its numbers from 5.6/11 in 2006 to 6.2/12 in 2007, and WLNE, while still under the Freedom regime, went from 1.8/4 to 2.9/6.


Steve Doerr, who just finished his first month as WLNE’s vice president and general manager, says the new owner/management is determined to debunk viewers’ perceptions that the station lacks consistency and is Massachusetts-focused (the station is licensed to New Bedford).


“We’re going to effect change immediately,” he said.


Doerr is investing in news and sales efforts, while looking for ways to differentiate the station from its competitors.


The station has already expanded its morning newscast by an hour each weekday, and has created a buzz by hiring as its chief political analyst Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, who, after serving as Providence’s mayor for 21 years, spent nearly five years in federal prison for corruption.


The station also plans to beef up its 24-hour Rhode Island News Channel on cable.


“We’re looking to create a product that people can rely on and not change every time the wind blows,” Doerr says.


“We think there’s an opportunity in this market and we’re looking for different ways to exploit it."

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