California's Central Valley grows fast

Though the slump in home sales is hitting close to home, the Fresno-Visalia market continues to flourish. Transplants from both San Francisco and Los Angeles are flocking in, as well as Hispanics. The market gained over 180,000 people since 2001, and is expected to absorb another 157,000-plus by 2011.

The region is a mix of farms, including those growing apples and oranges, and white-collar industries such as insurance. While it ranks as the No. 55 Nielsen DMA, the market known as the Central Valley is No. 47 in terms of television revenue. “Growth may have slowed down a little, but there's still a lot of it,” says KSEE President/General Manager Todd McWilliams.

As the market booms, so too does the ABC O&O, KFSN. The station won morning and 11 p.m. news and total-day ratings in the November sweeps, and its primetime edged CBS affiliate KGPE by a nose.

KFSN is looking to further separate itself from the pack. The station added hi-def local programming in April, the only one in the market to offer it, and recently relaunched its Website with a Flash video player dominating the homepage. President/General Manager Bob Hall says KFSN offers the best news resources in the region. “We have four newsrooms around the market and more reporters on the ground,” he says. “We're real consistent with our 'live, local, late-breaking news.'”

KFSN led the 2006 revenue race with $29.5 million, ahead of KSEE ($22.275 million) and KMPH ($21.375 million), according to BIA Financial. A strong Univision station, KFTV, hangs with the big stations. The market took in $114.6 million in 2007, and is forecasted to earn $128.3 million this year. Station managers say retail and telecom have stepped up spending, and with California moving its primary to Super Tuesday, stations are seeing earlier political spending.

With KFSN's stranglehold on the lead, the more compelling horse race involves KSEE and KMPH. A Pappas-owned Fox affiliate, KMPH was long the runner-up, but KSEE recently took over the second spot in terms of revenue. While Pappas announced last month that it was exploring options for its stations, including a sale, KSEE parent Granite climbed out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy and is investing in stations' digital channels and Websites, including the user-generated YouNews platform. “It's probably the best financial position we've been in years,” says McWilliams.

KSEE is building its local identity through the new ad-supported late-morning program Central Valley Today and the Bulldog Insider series focusing on Fresno State sports. But it's clearly KFSN's title to lose—the station aired five of the top six programs in November, including Dancing With the Stars, Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy.

Over at KGPE, they're waiting for Newport Television to close on its acquisition of the Clear Channel stations. Once that's done, News Director Jim Holland says KGPE has projects to launch. “We look forward to moving forward on some interesting initiatives,” he says. “It's fair to say we'll see some buzz regarding our plans.”

Station executives like the Central Valley's access to major metropolitan centers (San Francisco is about three hours to the northeast and Los Angeles is three hours south), and the mix of rural and urban areas. “It's an agricultural community,” says Hall, “but it's also a 'city-city.'”

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