Market Eye: Gunning for Best in ‘West’

Invigorated West Palm Beach stations vie for Florida Gold Coast riches

Late afternoons are the new battleground in West Palm Beach, Fla. WPBF took Ellen from WPTV and debuted it September 8 at 4 p.m., leading out of Dr. Oz. WPTV snagged Wendy Williams from WFLX for 3 p.m, moving Queen Latifah up to 2. WPEC, for its part, went local—debuting a rare 3 p.m. news.

“There’s been a lot of changes in early fringe,” says Caroline Taplett, president and general manager of WPBF. “The changes have been significant; the time period has really been shaken up.”

The battle goes on up and down the dial. Scripps, which owns powerhouse WPTV, and Hearst TV, which has WPBF, are well entrenched in the market. West Palm Beach-Fort Pierce got a blast of energy when Sinclair acquired CBS affiliate WPEC, which rooms with CW outlet WTVX and the MyNet WTCN.

But WPTV, celebrating its 60th anniversary, has legacy on its side. Scripps has owned the NBC affiliate since 1961. “We are very committed to the community,” says Steve Wasserman, VP/GM and Scripps divisional GM. “We have deep roots and it pays off.”

Other players in DMA No. 38 are Raycom’s Fox affiliate WFLX and the independent WHDT, owned by Guenther Marksteiner. Comcast is West Palm’s primary subscription TV operator. Diginets include Bounce on WFLX, Me-TV on WPTV and Estrella TV on WPBF.

WPTV and WFLX are linked through a shared services agreement. WPTV, whose news tagline is “Local Coverage You Can Count On,” produces 7-9 a.m. and 10-11 p.m. news for the Fox affiliate. While there are no plans to expand news on WFLX, Wasserman says he’s “always looking for opportunities.”

WPTV debuted The Now, a Scrippsproduced mix of local and national topical content, in the 4 p.m. slot. That sparked another early-fringe shake-up: WFLX had to scrap its 4 p.m. newscast, which WPTV could not produce with The Now’s live production. Steve Harvey now airs at 4.

1003_Market_WPBChart.jpgJohn Heislman, WFLX GM, says the WPTV pact is a keeper. “It really is very good for both sides of the desk,” he says.

West Palm-Fort Pierce’s economy is driven by tourism and construction. It’s been a long economic slump for South Florida, but the general managers say those indicators are headed in the right direction. “Business seems to be more robust than it has been,” says Wasserman.

WPTV is a monster in the ratings. It cruised to the total-day title in May, won the a.m. and early evening battles handily and posted a 5.1 household rating/10 share in late news, ahead of ABC affiliate WPBF’s 3.3/7 and WPEC’s 3.2/6. WPTV’s 2.0 in adults 25-54 topped WPBF’s 1.5. WPEC won primetime in households, while WPTV took the title in adults 25-54.

Wasserman cites the consistency of WPTV’s operation. “Consistency of coverage, of anchors and news staff, of ownership,” he says.

He also mentions a successfully symbiotic relationship with NBC; Today and Nightly News rate extremely well, he says, and primetime is strong. “The network helps the station and the station helps the network,” he says. “It’s a beautiful partnership.”

Stations are doing what they can to get ahead. WPTV scheduled Right This Minute at 7:30 p.m., moving Scripps’ homegrown Let’s Ask America to 12:30, leading out of the noon news. WPBF has Meredith Vieira at 10 a.m.; Taplett says it opened “very, very well.” WFLX has TMZ Live and a new competitor in a news slot it used to have exclusively; WTVX now has a 10 p.m. newscast too. Sinclair’s presence in West Palm has shaken up the scene. “It’s an extraordinarily competitive market with good operators,” says Taplett. “Hearst and Scripps have been here a long time, and Sinclair is doing everything it can to enhance WPEC.”

The political drama is heating up, particularly in the gubernatorial race, with Charlie Crist going up against incumbent Rick Scott. Spending has increased, but started late and may barely meet the forecasts, say some GMs. WPBF aired the gubernatorial debate October 15; the Hearst TV station lobbied hard to acquire it. “We went to [Florida capital] Tallahassee, went for it big-time, and got it,” says Caplett. “We were over the moon when we were able to secure it.”

West Palm Beach offers a livelier lifestyle than some of the more retirementoriented Florida communities, say the locals. It also offers plenty of news. “It’s a great market for news junkies,” says Taplett. “The market functions more like a Top 20 than No. 38. It keeps you challenged every day.”

WHAT’S WORKING IN WEST PALM BEACH-FORT PIERCE: HEY ‘NOW’! NEW WPTV PROGRAM FINDS VIEWERS

WPTV is trying something new and different with The Now, and Steve Wasserman, VP and general manager, thinks the station has a winner. Several Scripps stations debuted the 4 p.m., 60-minute news program this season, offering mostly local content supplemented with material from a national desk, and social media is keeping the now in The Now. WPTV’s program is around 75% local, and aims for fresh takes on stories. “I think it’s come together real well,” says Wasserman. “Anybody could put on a 4 p.m. newscast; the production quality and style is very different.”

The Now took the place of Ellen at WPTV, the talker moving to WPBF. Wasserman says The Now has tied and even beaten Ellen in households some days.

Veteran WPTV anchor Shannon Cake anchors The Now, which keeps her hustling. With an investigative reporting background, Cake wanted assurances that The Now was not an entertainment or magazine show. She got them. “She brings a tremendous amount of energy and personality,” says Wasserman.