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High-tech still rules in Austin market 8/31/2007 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Rich with technology firms, Austin took a hit during the dotcom bust some years ago, but all indications are that the market is healthy once again. Samsung recently opened a $2.5 billion (yes, billion) addition to its fabrication plant (the site produces computer gear), and the population is growing at an estimated 3% yearly rate. Station managers use words like “vibrant,” “eclectic,” and “forward-thinking” to describe the city, which is the state capital and home of the University of Texas.

“It’s a diverse place with good products—politics, education, high tech,” says KVUE President/General Manager Patti C. Smith, who arrived as a UT student in 1972. “I could work for the Chamber of Commerce.”

Austin boasts an exceptionally well-educated populace; some 39% of residents hold at least a bachelor’s degree, 12% higher than the national average. Nielsen’s No. 52 DMA, Austin ranks way up at No. 42 in terms of revenue. The market brought in $127.7 million last year, according to BIA Financial, up from $116.1 million in 2005. Belo’s ABC affiliate KVUE held a convincing lead with $39 million in 2006, ahead of Fox O&O KTBC ($28 million), Cerberus Capital’s CBS outlet KEYE ($26.4 million), and LIN’s NBC affiliate KXAN ($24.275).

KVUE ran the table in the May sweeps, winning total day ratings, primetime, and late, evening and morning news. KXAN claimed second in the news races, while KTBC was runner-up in prime. Smith says there’s a bond between KVUE and viewers that’s hard to break. “We’ve earned viewers’ trust with a daily commitment to journalistic and operational excellence,” she says, “as well as community service.”

The competition is trying out new products in an effort to chip away at KVUE’s lead. KXAN, which has a local marketing agreement with 54 Broadcasting’s CW/MyNetworkTV hybrid KNVA, moves its 4 p.m. news to 5 p.m. this week, and adds a noon newscast next week. The station will scrap Access Hollywood at 4:30 p.m. and run Jeopardy! twice (double Jeopardy!, anyone?) from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. “It makes sense for us because there are almost 20% more viewers at 5 than at 4,” says President/General Manager Eric Lassberg.

KEYE, which Cerberus Capital Management bought from CBS earlier this year, is pushing the user-generated model online, viewers submitting everything from baby photos to blog commentary to content for the “Gotta See Video” feature.

Over at KTBC, the station Website has gained momentum since shifting to the MyFoxAustin.com template last fall, though VP/General Manager Danny Baker concedes they got a late start. He’s building up morning news and seeks to continue the improvement with KTBC’s 9 p.m. news, an alternative to the competition’s 10 p.m. programs. “It’s taken some time, but it’s really starting to catch on,” says Baker. “Austin is a shift town, and people’s schedules dictate some lifestyle changes.”

But those lifestyle changes don’t include much switching from KVUE. The station continues to innovate, recently introducing the regular morning-news segment “Traffic Vue,” with a dedicated traffic anchor. With so many new residents flooding in, Smith reminds staff it’s essentially an audition each day. “Every time they watch, it’s an opportunity to learn about us,” she says. “That’s what’s in front of us every day.”

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