Market Eye: The New Face of New Orleans

Nine years after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, the inimitable city has a rare opportunity to redefine itself

The ninth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina came and went in late August. The milestone didn’t get much play in the local news in New Orleans, which would rather talk about the city’s booming film industry, its beloved Saints, just about anything else. “It’s not something people want to relive every year, especially when the city was 80% under water,” says Joel Vilmenay, president and general manager of WDSU. “Next year we’ll take a pause and look back.”

The market has taken remarkable strides in those nine years. While it was heavily reliant on tourism before the storm, visitors drawn to the city’s food, music and abundant character—and characters—building from the ground back up enabled New Orleans to diversify its economy. Technology, film production and advanced manufacturing fill out the portfolio.

“It’s really a tale of two cities,” says Tod Smith, WWL president and general manager. “We could have either tried to recreate what had been or reinvent ourselves. I think the market has really taken the opportunity to reinvent itself.”

WWL has been busy reinventing itself too. The CBS affiliate was an absolute monster—and the station of record during Katrina’s havoc—but had seen its eminence slip. Market veterans say the redefining of the region, including new residents and businesses, post-Katrina, represented an opportunity to win over new viewers.

Smith is intent on getting WWL back to its powerhouse roots. “The past few years, we’ve had a new commitment to telling stories that matter, enterprise and investigative pieces that we feel are in our wheelhouse,” he says. “We’ve rededicated ourselves to that, and I think we’re really seeing the results.”

Smith had a unique path to the WWL GM job. He worked at the station in college as a production assistant in the early ‘80s, when it was owned by Loyola University. He then worked at WWL from 1993-2005, climbing his way up to local sales manager. After a few stints outside of television, including at an ad agency, Smith took the GM job in 2012. “It’s rare that you get to do something you really love in your hometown,” he says.

Gannett acquired WWL in its Belo pickup last year. The station reasserted itself in the May sweeps, taking all the key news races. WWL put up an 8.2 household rating/13 share at 10 p.m., ahead of NBC affiliate WDSU’s 5.4/9. Fox station WVUE posted a noisy 6.1/9, along with a robust 3/7 in adults 25-54, at 9 p.m.

WVUE wins an extraordinary number of major national awards. In May, its leadership was in New York, picking up a prestigious Peabody prize for “Louisiana Purchased,” a collaborative, multi-faceted investigative series with the Times-Picayune’s NOLA.com. Late last year, parent Louisiana Media Company, which is owned by the Saints and the NBA’s Pelicans owner Tom Benson, worked out a shared services agreement with Raycom. Joe Cook retired as general manager and Raycom’s Sandy Breland took over.

New Orleans is No. 51 in terms of size and No. 48 in revenue, according to BIA/Kelsey. WWL brought home an estimated $28 million last year, says BIA/ Kelsey, while WVUE did $19.7 million and Hearst TV’s WDSU bagged $16.7 million. Tribune owns the ABC outlet, WGNO, as well as CW affiliate WNOL. Gannett has the MyNetworkTV station, WUPL. Le- Sea owns independent religious station WHNO.

Cox and Charter split the subscription TV riches.

Residents are extremely psyched to watch the Saints. WDSU gets four games this year—two on Sunday nights, and two as a simulcast of Monday Night Football. Fox airs the bulk of the schedule. “It’s been a very hot summer,” says Cook. “People are ready for football.”

They’re also ready for NCIS: New Orleans, one of an increasing number of shows and films, including Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, that are shot in the area. Vilmenay calls it a “vibrant” local film and TV production scene, thanks to enticing tax credits.

The stations are increasing their own productions. WDSU was first up with 4:30 a.m. news, with WWL and WVUE following suit. WDSU has Me-TV on its multicast tier. WWL added weekend morning news, and debuts a 6:30 p.m. newscast on WUPL September 9. Longer commuting patterns post-storm makes it a more attractive time slot, says Smith.

Business is booming, with the massive University Medical Center opening next year, and numerous residences being built in the central business district. “There are a lot of cranes up, a lot of construction going on,” says Vilmenay.

New Orleans is the rare midsize market with bigtime sports and big-city amenities. “World-class events, world-class music, world-class food,” says Vilmenay. “It’s a culturally significant city with a midsize sensibility.”

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You can’t have too much local football on TV in DMA No. 51, and WWL is increasing its pigskin offerings with a Tulane University coach’s show. The program debuted Aug. 31 and features coach Curtis Johnson being interviewed by one of the WWL sportscasters. It concludes a Sunday-night football block—wrap-up show Fourth Down On 4 at 10:35, an LSU coach’s show at 11:05 and the Tulane program at 11:35.

Tulane’s team recently moved back to campus after decades in the Superdome. Its first game in the new facility was set for Sept. 6.

WWL also covers the high school action Friday nights at 10:15. “New Orleans is a football-crazy town,” says Tod Smith, president and general manager. “This gives us the ability to marry that with our positioning of doing as much local programming as we can, and nothing is more local than high school football.”