Market Eye: Beetle Juice

VW plant means major jobs for Chattanooga

Stories of automotive plants closing are all too familiar across the U.S., but Chattanoogans are chuffed about the arrival of a new Volkswagen facility. Volkswagen announced a year ago that it plans to open its first U.S. plant, a billion-dollar operation that's expected to create 2,000 jobs—and thousands more for those doing ancillary business with VW. The first cars are to roll off the line in 2011.

It's huge news at a time when the local economy has been ailing, with local TV revenue down around 27% in the first half of the year. “The horizon is bright for us,” says WTVC VP/General Manager Mike Costa. “We just have to get there.”

Things are bright for WTVC these days. The Freedom Broadcasting-owned ABC outlet had a major May sweeps, winning total day household ratings, virtually splitting the primetime lead with Morris Multimedia CBS affiliate WDEF, and winning morning and evening news. WTVC took late news too, edging out Sarkes Tarzian's NBC affiliate WRCB with a 6.5 rating/20.8 share.

Costa singles out news director Tom Henderson and chief meteorologist David Glenn for WTVC's success. “It's hard news without a lot of fluff,” he says, “along with a great weather product.”

WTVC won the 2008 revenue race with $13.2 million, according to BIA Financial, ahead of WRCB's $12 million. Other stations include New Age Media's Fox outlet WDSI and MPS Media's CW affiliate WFLI, which it bought from Meredith last year.

The market's major employers include baking company Little Debbie and insurance concerns such as Blue Cross Blue Shield and Cigna, both of whose employees watch President Obama's health-care overhaul with considerable interest. Chattanooga also features some of the nation's top softball facilities; a recent New York Times article detailed the city's efforts to capture the considerable tourism dollars attached to major tournaments.

Stations are eager for their piece of the growth in the No. 86 DMA. WTVC, which produces WDSI's 10 p.m. news, airs its Sideline Wrap-up high school football show at 11:10 p.m. Fridays, and sends it to the Web from 11:35 to midnight. WDSI recently crowned its Chattanooga Idol champion, and WDEF partners with local businesses on its Value Club discount card program.

WRCB debuts Dr. Oz at 3 p.m. in the fall, and President/General Manager Tom Tolar says strong local advertising initiatives have mitigated the absence of major automotive ads. “We're seeing modest increases in cost per point in this market,” he says. “We haven't experienced that for several years.”

General managers say Chattanooga's rivers, mountains and proximity to major cities make it a great place to live. “More people have found out about it,” Costa says, “but Chattanooga's still a hidden gem.”

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