COVER STORY: Birth of a StationRaycom Media's new NBC affiliate, WMBF, the first built-from-scratch digital-television station in the U.S. 7/28/2008 08:10:00 AM Eastern
On a steamy late-June afternoon, at a raw office space in Myrtle Beach, S.C., workers buzzed about, deep in preparation. Stray wires and drop cloths -- not to mention a palpable sense of excitement -- seemed to be everywhere. Something unusual was happening: Raycom Media was raising a new NBC affiliate, WMBF. It is what many are calling the first built-from-scratch digital-television station in the United States.
Station creation is uncharted territory for most broadcasters, including Raycom. “We've never done it from the ground up,” Raycom president and CEO Paul McTear said. “We're starting with a whiteboard.”
WMBF will be a state-of-the-art operation -- entirely digital and equipped for HD local programming. Yet one month ago, the WMBF lobby was adorned in brown paper, with industrial-sized cans of Sherwin-Williams paint dotting the floor and laborers bouncing around, erecting cubicles and filling in ceiling tiles.
Thankfully, the air conditioning is working just fine, as the South Carolina temperature climbs well into the 90s. But this station will sign on at a time when many in the television business are feeling the heat.
It is, therefore, fitting that WMBF will go live on 08/08/08 -- a “significantly cool date,” McTear said -- to coincide with NBC's opening ceremonies from the Beijing Olympic Games. Much like a host city dealing with a mountain of last-minute details, the days before Aug. 8 are long and the nights often sleepless as they get the 18,000-square-foot facility ready for its close-up.
Herculean as this effort may seem, it's only the station's first hurdle in a lane of many. The biggest challenge isn't getting WMBF ready for its curtain-raiser that fateful Friday: It's making a TV station work in a broadcast economy rife with layoffs and dour earnings reports. It'll take nothing less than a medal-worthy performance by Raycom and the young WMBF team to make the fledgling station fly.
The launch of a full-power station in a substantial market is exceedingly uncommon. Broadcasting veterans are hard-pressed to name a Big Four affiliate built from scratch in recent years. “It's quite rare these days,” National Association of Broadcasters executive vice president Dennis Wharton said, “particularly in a market the size of Myrtle Beach and given the growth in that region.”
On this day in late June, Raycom director of engineering Bob Thurber was busy drilling, wiring and connecting in the new facility, formerly the home of a cellular-phone company called SunCom. WMBF will be a spoke in Raycom's so-called Carolina News Network, a string of news outlets with master control in Charlotte. Thurber wore a T-shirt with a monoscope test pattern on it and the letters "TVBC: Television Before Color."
He called it a relief to be free from the “legacy stuff” of traditional broadcasting. “Building a station from the ground up is a cleaner build,” Thurber said. “You're not changing the oil while the motor is running.”
The story of WMBF is as much a tale of Myrtle Beach, a sandy South Carolina boom town. Once a part of the Wilmington, N.C., DMA, it eventually became the Florence-Myrtle Beach market, which combined Florence's inland manufacturing and a medical hub (the area is nicknamed the Pee Dee, after the Pee Dee Indian tribe) with Myrtle Beach's vacation homes and seaside diversions.
Myrtle Beach continued to flourish, and now the No. 103 DMA is known as Myrtle Beach-Florence. The market saw its population grow from 660,000 in 2002 to more than 700,000 in 2007, BIA Financial Network reported, with comparable growth forecast for the next five years. BIA estimated local TV booking at almost $38 million this year.
What was once a sleepy beach town is, by many accounts, thriving. Dusty post-World War II motels with tiki themes along the coast, known as the Grand Strand, are being knocked down in favor of high-rise hotels bearing the names of upscale chains. Almost 14 million people will vacation in Myrtle Beach this year.
The grim economy, gas prices and resultant “staycations” haven't put much of a damper on the summer season. The Chamber of Commerce said the number of visitors has been mostly flat compared with last year.
A 'Bonus' in the Liberty Deal
Alabama-based Raycom has a stronghold in the Carolinas, with blue-chip stations such as WIS Columbia, S.C., and WBTV Charlotte, N.C. When Raycom took over the 15 Liberty stations in 2005 for close to $1 billion, an intriguing piece of the deal went largely unreported. Liberty had a construction permit to build a station in Myrtle Beach -- a “bonus,” according to McTear. While local residents could watch neighboring Raycom NBCs WIS and WECT Wilmington, N.C., on cable and DirecTV, they'd never had an NBC station to call their own.
“We had NBC affiliates in contiguous markets, but we couldn't actually take advantage of revenue,” said Marty Edelman, Raycom's senior VP of television.
Raycom executives decided that it would be cheaper and easier to build a station (they won't say how much they're spending, although estimates from multiple broadcasting veterans put the build at $8 million-$9 million) than to acquire an established player. The market's large retirement community was also a good fit for Raycom, an employee-owned company backed by the Retirement Systems of Alabama.
Many in the community saw the launch as evidence that Myrtle Beach has arrived. “I keep hearing from people, 'It's about time we had our own NBC,'” WMBF VP/general manager Ted Fortenberry said.
Fortenberry was raised in Mississippi but knows a bit about life in the Carolinas, having worked at stations in Greenville, S.C., and Charlotte. Since arriving from running Raycom's KAIT Jonesboro, Ark., Fortenberry has met with community officials and plodded through the red tape of permits and regulations before training his focus on staffing and planning launch strategy.
“Once you get past [the bureaucracy],” he said, “the television work is fun.”
Calm, Cool, Collected…Crazed
Perhaps not by coincidence, WMBF's headquarters is located next to the area's leading newspaper, McClatchy's Sun News. Fortenberry has been speaking with Sun president and publisher Pamela J. Browning about possible partnerships -- maybe sharing resources on editorials (like all Raycom general managers, Fortenberry will be responsible for two per week) and weather.
Fortenberry is also tapping Browning to learn the nuances of the market. With that in mind, he hired Rob Hatchell, a native of Florence, as chief meteorologist. Reporter Nikki Gaskins is from South Carolina, as well, and assignment coordinator Kyle Grainger has worked in the DMA for six years. “It was very important to us to find people who knew the lay of the land,” Fortenberry said.
As Thurber drilled above the anchor desk, not far from a $35,000 News Navigator contraption that marketing director Ray Magnant likened to “a big iPhone for the anchors,” the construction crew nodded politely at management. WMBF will ramp up to around 70 bodies at launch, with some 45 in the newsroom.
Fortenberry stepped up WMBF's outdoor-media campaign one month before launch. The station plugged a branding awareness campaign in print and on Time Warner Cable. Street teams will spread the WMBF word at fairs and festivals.
And this being a beach town, Magnant, of course, will advertise the launch's countdown on a banner streaming from the back of an airplane.
News director Matt Miller, 41, said the long nights are taking their toll. “People tell me I'm the 3 Cs: Calm, Cool, Collected,” he said. “In fact, I'm too tired to be anything but calm.”
Thanks to the Raycom presence in the region, Miller promises “big market news” augmented with resources from station siblings up and down the coast. The Web will be a 24/7 news source; pre-launch, WMBFtv.com offers, among other things, weather updates, “vlogs” that introduce talent and a clip of Miller demonstrating how the green screen works. (“It uses the same technology you see in your favorite science-fiction movies …”)
Unlike anyone in the market, WMBF's local news will be HD, even out in the field. Needless to say, there wasn't a ton of syndicated fare left to choose from, but WMBF will make do with The Doctorsand The Bonnie Hunt Show, among others, come fall. The station inked retransmission-consent deals with Dish Network and Time Warner Cable, and it is finalizing a pact with local cable provider HTC.
When a Recession Can Be a Good Thing
Despite the industry's doldrums -- McTear said revenue is down as much as 35% in some markets -- Raycom has held true to the staffing and budget levels it laid out one year earlier. “We've got more of a long-term focus, which makes it easier on us,” McTear said. “Even if that doesn't make looking at the results any easier.”
Paradoxically, industry watchers said it's not a bad time for a well-funded, savvy operator to launch a TV station. Election money looms, and constructing a modern digital facility enables the station to be built for multiplatform content distribution. Consultants saw WMBF as a long-term play in a strategic locale. “A difficult economic period can be a great time for a new competitive entrant,” said Frank N. Magid Associates TV president Steve Ridge. “The existing competition can be hamstrung by the weakened environment.”
Media buyers believe the Olympics will provide a robust springboard for WMBF. “It will give them good initial exposure,” said Starcom USA VP/local activation director Cecilia Bizon. “And the fact that there hasn't been an NBC station will benefit WMBF, as well.”
That said, WMBF is up against hearty competition. Barrington Broadcasting's WPDE and Bahakel Communications' WFXB are established, while Media General's CBS affiliate, WBTW, claimed fully one-half of the DMA's revenue in 2007, according to BIA. WBTW opened an eye-popping 30,000-square-foot facility near the beach last August (its main headquarters was on the Florence side of the DMA) and overhauled its set and graphics. “We haven't been sitting back,” WBTW VP/GM Michael Caplan said. Citing Raycom's reputation, Caplan expects the company to bring its A game: “We know they'll do a good job and play a meaningful role in the market. The audience is there for an NBC affiliate.”
Beyond simply making sure channel 32 is not dark when the station hits the “On” switch Aug. 8, Fortenberry is shooting for a 7%-10% share of revenue for the first year. Raycom's Edelman expects WMBF to turn a profit in year three.
Sun publisher Browning says the key to WMBF's success is focusing on the local, and being a good neighbor -- all of the things broadcasters usually do. “All of the tourism makes Myrtle Beach seem like a bigger city than it is,” she added, “but it's really a small core of people.”