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Capital Concerns

Albany market suffers tough times 8/08/2008 08:00:00 PM Eastern

A week before the torch was lit, Steve Baboulis lamented the softer-than-expected Olympic sales at WNYT, Albany's NBC affiliate. Nonetheless, he was eager to run a slew of promotional spots during the Games, hoping to extend WNYT's longtime dominance of the news market.

“We're going to be one of our biggest customers,” says Baboulis, VP and general manager of the Hubbard Broadcasting outlet.

WNYT has led the ratings at both 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. since 1999—and claims it was the first station in the country to use the “Live. Local. Latebreaking” tagline. It's now debuting a “Coverage You Can Trust” moniker.

Albany-Schenectady-Troy is the 56th-ranked DMA, and WNYT's news success (despite NBC's weak primetime) has paid off. The station accounted for $21.9 million of the market's total of $77.4 million last year, according to BIA Financial Network.

That was second only to Freedom Communications' $24.5 million, derived from a CBS-CW (WRGB-WCWN) duopoly. Young Broadcasting's ABC affiliate, WTEN, was third with $17.2 million, while Newport Television's Fox outlet, WXXA, finished fourth at $12.6 million.

But 2008 has been less than a gold-medal year in New York's capital city. GMs say the economy has been a lingering trouble spot, substantially hurting revenues. Layoffs have hit WTEN and WXXA. Others are replacing departing employees with part-timers.

June unemployment in the area was at its highest level since 1992, and consumer confidence plummeted. The state's new governor, David Paterson, hasn't ruled out reducing the traditionally stable state government work force—a major economic driver. Even attendance at the Saratoga horse-racing track is down dramatically this summer, in part due to gas prices.

“There aren't big ups or big downs in a capital economy usually, but this year is tough,” says WTEN General Manager Rene LaSpina.

WTEN owner Young Broadcasting's much-publicized struggles prompted about 10 layoffs in January, and the cancellation of its weekend morning news. In June, WXXA cut 11 employees amid parent Newport Television's company-wide cuts.

Station managers are looking to local advertisers to partly offset slowdowns in auto, retail and spot buys. Still, new WXXA General Manager Bill Sally says, “We're all looking for any little positive indicator or sign that we're on the way up, and we're not seeing that.”

Only CBS affiliate WRGB is producing its news in high-definition thus far. But the market has been active in the multicast arena, with all four network affiliates involved, including a locally produced 24-hour weather station on WTEN and the World Championship Sports Network on WRGB.

Robert Furlong, VP and general manager of the CBS-CW duopoly, would like to launch the second 10 p.m. newscast in the market on WCWN, and says “a stronger lead-in will be the trigger.” WXXA's 10 p.m. newscast pulls in the same 6 rating (but lower share) than WNYT does an hour later.

Other developments include Time Warner Cable's local news station now offering a radio simulcast. And the MyNetworkTV outlet—Venture Technologies Group's WNYA—has acquired rights to New York Yankees games, searching for a lift in brand identity. “We hope it's going to be a good launch pad for our fall,” says General Manager Duncan Brown.

On the Web, WNYT is trying to broaden its appeal, having recently launched a local lifestyle site, 518living.com (referring to the region's principal area code), with barely a sign that it's affiliated with the hard-news WNYT.com. That's a trend in other markets, too.

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