Market Eye: The Great Space Race

Huntsville stations cover aeronautics in high-flying ‘bama DMA

Big changes are occurring in Huntsville-Decatur-Florence, Ala., and that includes the TV stations there. Tribune gained WHNT in its Local TV acquisition, Nexstar picked up WZDX when it acquired the Grant stations, and WZDX and WAAY have new general managers.

“We’re the quiet one,” says Vanessa Oubre, VP and general manager of Raycom’s WAFF. “We’re the only one that hasn’t had major GM or ownership changes.”

Huntsville, Decatur and Florence hug the Tennessee River in northern Alabama. Nielsen has the market at No. 79, but it’s No. 77 in terms of revenue, per BIA/Kelsey. NASA’s U.S. Space & Rocket Center is based here and other companies are moving in as well, including firearms manufacturer Remington, which is building a $110-million facility.

NBC affiliate WAFF and CBS-aligned WHNT were virtually deadlocked in the February sweeps’ a.m. households race, WHNT eking out a slim win at 6-7 a.m. WAFF took early evening ratings, while WHNT’s 10 household rating/25 share at 10 p.m. nudged ahead of WAFF’s 9/22. WHNT won primetime.

“We’re always local, local, local,” says Stan Pylant, president and general manager. “We’re aggressive in terms of breaking news and weather.”

0305_MarketEye_Chart.jpgWAFF is hardly surrendering the weather battle. Callers to the station are greeted with a hearty “We track storms!” Oubre says the station has the market’s only live radar, and strategically located fixed cameras to help spot severe weather. Tornado season is just beginning. “Fingers crossed, nothing has happened yet,” says Oubre. “But if it does, we’re ready to cover it and keep viewers safe.”

That follows a rough winter; one February storm dropped 8½ inches of snow. “In Huntsville, that’s a big deal,” says Oubre.

Paul Dughi became general manager of Calkins Media’s WAAY in January 2014. The ABC affiliate has a unique beat system focused on space, military and technology. WAAY scrapped its 4 p.m. newscast in September and launched a 7 p.m. program. “We put the resources into newsgathering and added 14- 15 people,” says Dughi.

Mark Overstreet took on the GM job at WZDX and MyNetworkTV subchannel WAMY in late-February. He’d been director of sales at WTLV-WJXX Jacksonville. Tim Busch, Nexstar executive VP and co-COO, cites Overstreet’s “broadcasting expertise, strong client relationships and dedication to the local southern communities.”

Comcast is the market’s primary subscription-TV operator. Lockwood owns CW affiliate WHDF.

WHNT has success with a 6:30 p.m. news. It’s up against Wheel of Fortune, but the station keeps the inventory. WHNT extends its “News 19” brand on its Antenna TV channel, airing a 9 p.m. news.

The general managers say the Huntsville market has a sophisticated populace, a reasonable cost of living and mostly favorable weather. “The climate can’t be beat,” says Pylant. “Except when you have snow the last two weeks of February.”

WAAY’S COVERAGE STRATEGY CAN’T BE BEAT

One may associate a beat reporter system with newspapers more than stations, but that’s the setup at rejiggered WAAY, where one reporter is dedicated to the space industry, one covers military happenings out of Redstone Arsenal and a third handles tech.

The strategy has been in place for about eight months. “Those are the three economic drivers in this region,” says Paul Dughi, VP/GM. “There wasn’t anyone at the stations or the newspaper focused specifically on that.”

The beat system helps WAAY’s content stand out, believes Dughi, in a market where larger stations owned by Tribune and Raycom are well ahead in the race. “It allows us to stake out our territory,” he says.

WAAY launched SpaceAlabama.com, TechAlabama.com and RedstoneAlabama.com; Dughi says the sites are profitable.