CBS' South Florida Shakeup

Changes at the top aim to help stations connect with robust region
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Growth has been slow for the 39 owned-and-operated outlets that make up the CBS station group, especially in the South Florida markets. But CBS execs are hopeful new managers and a fresh game plan will finally help the station group capitalize on the region's population boom.

Revenue growth for the entire station group stands at a modest 5% since 2001. The stations took in $1.57 billion in 2001, and the number peaked at $2.03 billion in election year 2004, before dropping back to $1.85 billion last year, according to BIA Financial Network.

CBS' primetime improvement, built on hit programs like CSI and Without a Trace, is helping. But analysts say CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves is pushing the stations to raise their game as he prepares for retransmission-consent negotiations with cable and satellite companies in the coming years.

Moonves has said repeatedly that he expects to win “hundreds of millions of dollars” in the negotiations, and consultants say he believes the stations have to do a better job of pulling their weight.

“These local stations are part of the content for which [CBS] wants to get paid more in the future,” says David Joyce, media analyst with Miller Tabak + Co.

In South Florida, where CBS has a duopoly in Miami and a triopoly in West Palm Beach, CBS execs want growth to reflect the region's population explosion. Last month, CBS hired two men to achieve that.

Shaun Mcdonald comes from CBS' Detroit duopoly to serve as president/general manager of Miami's WFOR and WBFS (which air CBS and MyNetworkTV [MNT] programming, respectively) and West Palm's WTVX, WWHB and WTCN (CW, Azteca and MNT affiliates).

Tom Doerr, an award-winning news director, comes from CBS' Dallas duopoly to be VP/station manager for WFOR and WBFS.

Major challenges

The men have a significant task at hand. The stations have been unable to improve their 11 p.m. news standings, even as CBS' 10 p.m. shows, particularly the CSI franchise, have taken over the time period.

This fall, WFOR lost King World's Dr. Phil to Post-Newsweek's WPLG, an ABC affiliate. WPLG owns the 5 p.m. time slot, and the switch has drastically improved its 6 p.m. news as well, boosting it from third to first in the market since May.

In fact, the South Florida stations have been underperforming for longer than this season. In 2001, WFOR reaped 14.1% of $430 million in total market revenue, according to BIA. The station rose to 14.8% of $478 million in 2003, but, in 2005, WFOR was down to 14.3% of the $502.6 million market.

Similarly, WBFS had 8.7% of $430 million in total market revenue in 2001. By 2005, that figure had dropped to 7.3% of $502.6 million.

Meanwhile, Sunbeam Television's WSVN, a Fox affiliate, is the English-language market leader, gathering 19% of the market share in 2005, up from 16.9% in 2001.

No shortage of viewers

A lack of potential viewers isn't the problem. Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, the nation's 16th-largest market, has grown 20% since 2000, according to BIA, to more than 2.5 million people. Of those, nearly 45% are of Hispanic origin.

West Palm Beach grew 3.2% in the same period, but its average household income of nearly $61,000 is significantly higher than Miami's $52,000. “These are good, vibrant TV markets, and you want to be there,” says Tom Kane, president/CEO of the CBS-owned TV stations. “These markets are on the leading edge of growth.”

Immigrants look elsewhere

While WSVN has connected with the new arrivals, the CBS group's stations have not.

“The reason that the CBS stations there aren't growing apace with the market is because of the continued influx of immigration from Latin American countries,” says Joyce. He notes that many of the newcomers opt for the Fox affiliate or for the Spanish-language Univision and Tele­mundo outlets.

The South Florida group's former general manager, Brien Kennedy, lost his job because he wasn't able to take advantage of the population growth, say consultants.

McDonald and Doerr need to wring more revenue out of digital offerings, the consultants believe, and do a better job of connecting with Hispanic viewers. Says McDonald, “This is a heavy bilingual market. That's where the opportunity is.”

Doerr, who has won Dupont, Edward R. Murrow and Peabody awards for his newscasts, says that compelling content appeals to those of all nationalities.

“When it comes to news,” he says, “people are largely interested in the same things all over the country: what's going on in the community, personal safety and health.”

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