Market Eye: Class of the Commonwealth

Roanoke’s market leader must overcome key anchor departures

Why This Matters

What’s Working in Roanoke-Lynchburg

Jeffrey Marks, president and general manager at WDBJ, knows what the station does best and is playing that up. A local news power, despite something of a personnel exodus of late, WDBJ is increasing its local content offerings. The station pushed the start time of News 7 Mornin’(yes, Mornin’) to 5 a.m., from 5:30 a.m., and offers the market’s only weekend-morning news at 8-9 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays. “It’s a niche that no one else is occupying,” Marks says.

The CBS affiliate stands out with four full-time meteorologists, Marks adds, and Roanoke-Lynchburg’s largest TV sports department. WDBJ also airs MyNetworkTV (branded “My 19”) on its multicast channel, and has a 10 p.m. newscast Monday through Friday that is unique to the .2.

Marks says the key to staying ahead is keeping content fresh—on all platforms. “We try to assume,” he says, “that what worked yesterday may not work today.” —MM

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WDBJ Roanoke has ruled the local TV news races for about a halfcentury,
but its rivals suggest the contest is tightening. A pair of
key WDBJ anchors are moving on—up-and-coming 11 p.m. host Natasha Ryan left for KING Seattle in January,
while Keith Humphry, who has anchored the 6
p.m. news for 31 years, retires in May. News director
Amy Morris recently departed, too.

The Schurz-owned CBS affiliate has long
prided itself on continuity;
Jeffrey Marks, president/
general manager, is just
the fourth GM at the
station. He says WDBJ’s
deep bench will serve it
well amidst the upheaval.
“There’s a real sense of
WDBJ belonging to the
community and serving
the community,” Marks
says. “Our key people in
news have been homegrown
over the years.
They know the 26 counties
we serve and take seriously the notion of
‘We are your hometown station.’”

As befits a hyphenated market, DMA No. 66
has a real split down the middle. WDBJ, Fox
affiliate WFXR and NBC outlet WSLS are based
on the Roanoke side, while ABC affiliate WSET
is over in Lynchburg. Owned by Allbritton,
WSET celebrates its roots—a contrast to its previous
self-image. “We know what we are and are
not ashamed of it,” says Randy Smith, president
and general manager. “For many years, the station
tried to hide that it was in Lynchburg and
tried to be another Roanoke station. We need to
be proud to be from Lynchburg.”

Smith says that view has helped WSET
grow in the market. Yet WDBJ remains a force,
winning all the major household races in the
February sweeps, its 6.3 rating/21 share in
late news ahead of WSET’s 4.7/15.7. (WFXR’s
10 p.m. news, produced by WSLS, posted
a 5/10.2.) WSET is news runner-up in most
household ratings races, and the station continues
to make strong gains among viewers 25-54.

Grant Communications has a duopoly with
Fox-CW combo WFXR-WWCW. Millard
Younts owns indie WDRL. WDBJ also airs
MyNetworkTV’s primetime on its multicast
channel, and has a 10 p.m. weekday news that
is unique to the .2. Media General owns NBC
affiliate WSLS, which has a new general manager—
Leesa Wilcher recently took over for Warren
Fiihr, who joined Comcast in Sacramento,
Calif. Comcast is the major cable operator, but
satellite TV is huge in Roanoke-Lynchburg because
of terrain issues in the market. Fully 46%
of the TV homes are satellite subscribers, Marks
notes, compared to 41% cable homes. “A significant
part of the market is not cabled,” he says.

A Nielsen diary market, Roanoke-Lynchburg
has an older, conservative population. It is home
to several colleges, including Virginia Tech and
Roanoke College. Other top industries include
manufacturing of nuclear power facilities.

Stations are scrambling to take down WDBJ.
WFXR is posting huge American
numbers, and sister
WWCW features The Daily Buzz
at 7 a.m. “We like the broad demographic
appeal of our two
stations,” says Ralph Claussen,
general sales manager.

WSET has Oprah Winfrey in
a unique 5 p.m. slot, which
will shift to local news on
Sept. 12. Smith has also targeted
that date for a local
high-definition launch. (WDBJ
and WSLS already offer HD.)
“We’ll have new faces, new
graphics, new music,” Smith says.

But dethroning WDBJ—where anchor Jean
Jadhon, with 18½ years at the station, is considered
“fairly new” by her GM—won’t happen
anytime soon. “We’ve got a mix of people
who are pretty new, and a lot who’ve been
here a long time,” Marks says. “They really
understand the folks in this market.”

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