Fox Secondary Channels Are Primary Successes

'American Idol' and 'The X Factor' flying on a multicast tier? Dot-two newbies say proof is in the numbers

When the Fox network and a number of its affiliates were parting ways over retrans-related differences during that wild summer of 2011, and Fox announced it would instead broadcast on some new station partners’ subchannels, many wondered how the heck a network could possibly reach a full-scale audience as a dot-two.

But as some of those partners approach the one-year mark as Fox affiliates, their ratings—and revenue—suggest that Fox has done just fine on secondary channels. For stations such as Indiana’s WEVV Evansville and WTHI Terre Haute, adding the likes of American Idol, The X Factor and NFL football to their local TV portfolio has been a blessing. “As a general manager in this position, I can say it’s been a lot of fun. This does not happen a lot around the country,” says Tim Black, WEVV general manager. “It’s been a blast seeing it come together, and I’m not sure you could ask for things to go any smoother.”

Stations have a wide array of multicast options available, including their own homespun news and weather, and digital networks covering everything from popular movies and series to healthy living to Spanish-language entertainment.

But a Big Four network is a more ideal option. To be sure, the socalled “short markets,” where a certain network is not represented, are uncommon, and they are limited to smaller DMAs. Among the 22 dottwo channels airing Fox, Evansville (DMA no. 104) and Fort Wayne (no. 109) are the largest markets; both dot-twos came on board with Fox amid the 2011 af! liates shake-up. More typical are subchannels in Marquette, Mich. (no. 180), and Mankato, Minn. (no. 198).

For those lucky enough to have a Big Four network available, it is the gold standard in multicasting, and a duopoly at a time when such arrangements are increasingly hard to come by. “You get recognition— you get a brand,” says Chip Harwood, a multicast network distributor. “You’re selling [an established] brand in your market—it’s Vampire Diaries versus This TV.”

The Flipping Summer

The stormy summer of 2011 saw Fox flip several affiliations, including moving from WFFT Fort Wayne (Ind.), to the subchannel of Granite’s WISE, departing WFXW Terre Haute to a multicast of LIN’s WTHI and going from KSFX Springfield (Mo.) to Koplar-owned KRBK’s subchannel.

More recently, Fox found new station partners in Idaho Falls and Twin Falls, Idaho, with both displaced stations switching to This TV on July 1.

WEVV’s Black says he heard from a number of clients that viewership would plummet with Fox on his station’s dot-two. To that point, he counters with the household ratings from Game 6 and Game 7 of last year’s World Series on Fox: a robust 19 rating/ 34 share and 25 rating/41 share respectively. “When people try to tell me viewers can’t find the station, I point to those numbers,” Black says. “If people want to see [a show], they’re gonna ! nd it.”

Ratings are mostly level with those from the previous season, Black adds, when Fox aired on primary channel WTVW; at most, a show is off 10%. Key to driving viewers to Fox’s new home in Evansville was a $100,000 outdoor media campaign. WEVV also worked with electronics stores to distribute flyers announcing the change. “We manned phones and covered email and social media,” says Black, “but we never really received an avalanche of calls or emails.”

To some degree, Fox’s own high-wattage programming, whether it’s a series or sports, is its own marketing device. When WTHI bumped TheCoolTV for Fox on its dot-two last September, people were determined to find their NFC games on Sunday afternoons, says Todd Weber, vice president and general manager. WTHI also sweetened the pot by launching a 10 p.m. news on its dot-two.

Coming up on a year as part of the Fox family, Weber says Fox on WTHI’s dot-two has 10% of the market’s household ratings share and is likely No. 3 in the revenue pecking order. The ratings share is down from 12% last year on a primary channel, but Weber notes that shortly after losing the Fox affiliation, Nexstar’s WFXW switched to an ABC affiliate (and call letters WAWV), giving the market a fourth network affiliate. “We’re real pleased with an audience share of 10%,” he says.

That Fox is able to produce comparable ratings on a multicast channel is a testament to the strength of the network’s brand. Showing that it can work on a less visible channel may also give the network additional leverage when it comes to negotiating affiliation agreements.

Fox declined to comment for this story.

Harwood is not surprised to hear that ratings held up on the dottwos. “There might be a very, very small dropoff,” he says. “But as long as you have cable carriage and, obviously, over the air, it shouldn’t be a big deal at all.”

Several stations, including WGGB Spring! eld (Mass.), have been airing Fox on a subchannel for years. Fox may be the most visible network on the multicast tier, but it’s not the only one. Among other examples, CBS is a multicast at NBC affiliate WNKY Bowling Green (Ky.), and NBC airs on ABC affiliate WIVT Binghamton’s (N.Y.) digital tier. A year after launching, the ABC multicast of KSBW Monterey (Calif.), an NBC outlet, tied for first in primetime adults 25-54 rating in May.

Among the dot-two duopolies, CBS and Fox seem to go together particularly well, reaching both ends of the demographic scale. That combo has worked at WBOC Salisbury (Md.) since Fox replaced UPN six years ago. “Fox21” was No. 2 in primetime in May, says Craig Jahelka, vice president and general manager, with a 6.9 household rating/12.1 share and a 4.9/12.9 in adults 25-54.

“We’re thrilled to be a Fox affiliate,” Jahelka says. “We have the No. 1 and No. 2 networks.”

A Double-Edged Sword

Of course, partnering with Fox means partnering with Fox—and dealing with the stiff retrans-sharing commitment that spawned the affiliate divorces last year. Jahelka says there’s no slack for dot-two affiliates. “We play by the same rules as everybody else,” he says. “If you want to be a Fox affiliate, you agree to the terms.”

For some of the new Fox affiliates, it’s all good—a chance to air rare big-tent programming and an opportunity to extend their news brand, which is a particularly lucrative proposition in an election year. Buoyed by its first year with Fox, WTHI expanded its news on the Fox channel Aug. 11, airing 10 p.m. news seven days a week instead of five. Weber calls adding Fox to WTHI a “game-changer.”

“Having Fox prime and sports, and to be able to have our news brand at 10 p.m.” he says, “it’s a 100% upgrade.”

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