Market Eye: A Two-Horse Race in Kentucky

Gray and Cordillera battle it out in booming Lexington

There is big stuff happening in Lexington. Enrollment at the University of Kentucky is tickling 30,000 for the first time, downtown is booming and the city’s famed 3 Bs—bourbon, bluegrass and basketball—have added a fourth, according to some of the more hops-minded residents. “I have four breweries within walking distance of my home,” says Chris Mossman, president and general manager at WKYT.

The local news scene is similarly bubbling. WKYT introduced weekend morning news shortly after Mossman arrived late in 2012, and WLEX followed in January—joining less traditional 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. newscasts on the WLEX grid. WKYT will further expand news in November, though Mossman is mum on specifics. “There is a lot of news going on in the marketplace,” says Pat Dalbey, WLEX president/GM.

The two stations duke it out to what some would consider a draw. Cordillera-owned WLEX dominates the metropolitan area, and Gray Television-owned WKYT the surrounding regions. WLEX rules the mornings. WKYT won a hot early evening race in May, and late news too—the CBS affiliate put up an 8.2 household rating/25 share at 11 p.m., ahead of WLEX’s 6/18. WKYT won the late news adults 25-54 derby by a wider margin.

Mossman, a B&C General Manager of the Year at WITN Greenville (N.C.) in 2011, has worked hard to reshape WKYT, including an additional 90 minutes of news a day and a rebrand, from 27 News First to WKYT News. “There’s a fresher, cleaner look to everything we do,” he says. “We weren’t looking and acting like a No. 1 station, which we were, and have become again.”

Battle for Best of Breed

Gray has a unique setup in Lexington in a pair of CBS affiliates; besides WKYT, it owns WYMT on the opposite end of the market. That station reaches eastern Kentucky and beyond with a full news load, which went HD a few months ago, says Neil Middleton, VP/GM. It also debuted This TV on a subchannel.

BIA/Kelsey has WLEX at $22.6 million in 2013 revenue, ahead of WKYT’s $17.9 million. Sinclair owns Fox affiliate WDKY. Morris Multimedia has ABC-aligned WTVQ. WKYT airs The CW on a subchannel while WTVQ does the same with MyNetworkTV. Time Warner Cable is Lexington’s major subscription TV operator. WKYT produces the news for WDKY, which runs it as hour-long programs at 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Marvin Bartlett, anchor and news manager at WDKY, calls it the “kitchen sink approach.” “[The 10 p.m.] may be the only newscast people see all day,” he says. “We try to throw all the news of the day in there.”

WTVQ will add a 9 a.m. news magazine Oct. 6. “We saw an opportunity there to expand our local presence,” says Chris Aldridge, VP and general manager.

Yet Lexington is, in local parlance, a twohorse race. WLEX is increasing its investigative focus and spotlights the good in the community with “Making a Difference” segments. “It allows us to highlight a person, an organization, a movement that’s making a positive change in the marketplace,” says Dalbey.

WKYT seeks to own weather—it has four meteorologists, as does WLEX—and balances experience and relative youth. “We have a fantastic team that’s been here a long, long time,” Mossman says. “But we’re not old.” The local economy, helped by the state capital of Frankfort and the massive university, is in OK shape. The Breeders’ Cup comes to the market for the first time next year, and will be an economic boon and a major news event.

The local powers will, of course, be all over the race. “There are two stations at the top, and we battle it out every day,” says Dalbey. “Both do good weather and hard news and sports, and are good community servants.”

WHAT’S WORKING IN LEXINGTON: MYSTERIES IN THE MIX AT WLEX

If it’s Monday in Lexington, it’s time for “Mystery Monday”—news segments covering what Pat Dalbey, WLEX president and general manager, calls “the crazy stuff” in the market. “Mystery Monday” tackles everything from ghost sightings to haunted houses to local cold cases. Delivered with a straight face, the stories run around two minutes; WLEX debuted them about a year ago.

“It’s a good franchise piece for us,” says Dalbey. “It’s gotten a following.”

Recent reports include a supposedly haunted Civil War battlefield, a monster that lives in a lake and the market’s own version of Sasquatch, known locally as “The Hillbilly Beast.”

Dalbey says the stories are a social media natural. “We’ve got good storytellers,” he says, “and it’s certainly different from normal television.”