Market Eye: Tri-ing Some New Things

Star anchor calls it a day in Tenn.-Va. market; WJHL has rare GM change

Why This Matters

What’s Working in the Tri-Cities

Johnny Wood has been described as the Elvis of the Tri-Cities—a metaphorical rock star after 44 years on the air at WCYB. He is the rare anchor who gets public praise from the competition: “He’s a great journalist who deserves all the accolades,” says Dan Cates, WJHL GM. Adds WKPT boss George DeVault: “He will be missed.”

WCYB is sending its local treasure off in style. While Wood’s main slot is 6-7 a.m., his final newscast on Dec. 21 will be at noon—in front of a packed crowd at the restored Paramount Theatre in the border town of Bristol. “It’s gonna be a very nice event,” says Jack Dempsey, WCYB VP/general manager.

WCYB has also been airing Wood retrospectives all month.

While the competition gives Wood due respect, it’s still competition, and mornings will be more of a race. “We made plans to start morning news in ’14,” DeVault says. “We may have to move that up a little bit.” —MM

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A couple of fixtures in the Tri-Cities TV scene of southwestern Virginia and northeastern Tennessee are moving on. Johnny Wood, one of the last true local TV stars in the nation, will anchor his final newscast for WCYB Dec. 21, wrapping up a storied 44-year career. But another familiar face in the market—made up of the border town of Bristol, Tenn.-Va., and Johnson City and Kingsport, Tenn.—is on board at WCYB: Jack Dempsey spent 27 years at WJHL, including 23 as general manager, but when the opportunity to run the DMA leader opened up, he grabbed it.

“Opportunities like this don’t come along that often— it was too good to pass on,” says Dempsey, who cited as inspiration the chance to work for Randy Bongarten, chairman/CEO of WCYB parent Bonten Media, and to oversee three stations. “I didn’t hesitate.”

Dan Cates succeeded Dempsey atop WJHL on Sept. 3 and immediately set out to put his stamp on Media General’s CBS affiliate. He rebranded the station from 11 Connects to News Channel 11, with “In Your Corner” as its tagline. “11 Connects was not really resonating in the market,” Cates says.

Leading the news charge for WJHL is Jennifer Dale, who came on board as news director in October and brings a strong grasp of traditional and social media. “She’s extremely innovative and passionate about news and content and the digital side,” Cates says.

With Dempsey switching teams, George DeVault’s local tenure is unrivaled; he has been general manager at WKPT since 1979. WJHL used to produce the ABC affiliate’s news, but WKPT took it back in-house in 2008 and has been airing 8-minute mini-casts. On Jan.14, the station will debut full 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts. “We hired a bunch of people, and will hire a bunch more by the end of the year,” DeVault says. “We’ll concentrate more on our piece of the Tri-Cities than the others do.”

The stations take pride in covering their submarkets. Glenwood Communications’ WKPT, which features MyNetworkTV on its dot-two, is in Kingsport. WJHL is in Johnson City, and WCYB, an NBC affiliate, is in Bristol. Bonten operates Esteem Broadcasting’s Fox affiliate, WEMT, through a shared-services agreement, and has the CW on its dot-two. Charter is the market’s primary subscription-TV operator, while satellite-TV service is popular due to the area’s mountainous terrain.

DeVault notes that each of the traditional Big Three affiliates had a key media partner until recently: WJHL had a newspaper, but Media General sold that division. WKPT still has eight radio stations, and WCYB has WEMT.

The multicast offerings are more than one might expect for DMA No. 96. Besides MyNet, WKPT has RTV and Nashville Network as subchannels. WCYB offers Live Well Network, WEMT has This TV, and WJHL airs Me-TV. “There are a lot of different choices for that small number of people who are not on satellite or cable,” DeVault says.

The stations are upping their news output. WCYB expanded its weekend-morning news to an hour in September, while WJHL added weekend-morning news earlier this year. WKPT is looking at mornings.

WCYB took the news races in the May sweeps, including 11 p.m. with a 7 household rating/24 share— ahead of WJHL’s 6/21. WJHL won primetime, but WCYB wins news thanks to a historically stronger signal, Dempsey says, a well-entrenched anchor team and syndication giants Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! “They don’t seem to ever weaken,” he says.

Cates says it’s “mind-boggling” to contemplate being just the third general manager in WJHL’s 59-year history. He likes his new surroundings. “It’s a beautiful part of the country—I’m thankful to be here,” he says. “There’s a lot to do and a lot of really nice people.”

E-mail comments to mmalone@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @BCMikeMalone