“Heart” Smart

WBIR's community approach flies in Knoxville

WBIR President/General Manager Jeff Lee would love to take credit for the Gannett station's dominance in Knoxville, Tenn. But he admits that the seeds of its success were planted decades ago. Long before

Gannett acquired WBIR's owner Multimedia in 1995, the NBC affiliate established the “Straight from the Heart” slogan that endures to this day.

That translates to community-oriented programming and news presented in an understated, non-sensational way. Should a newscast stray from that mandate, the station will hear from its viewers. “They'll call us and say, 'That's not Straight from the Heart,'” says Lee.

Although WBIR won late news in February with a hearty 12.3 rating/22 share in households, Lee says there's more demand for lighter local fare than for hard news. In addition to the hour-long Style, which targets women, Live at Five offers what Lee calls “fun stuff you can do”; a recent report featured an area man training for the national rock-paper-scissors championship.

Stations are duking it out on alternative platforms, too. The Website of Fox affiliate WTNZ has a popular trivia game connected to Fox gamer Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?. Over at CBS affiliate WVLT (which won primetime in February), the “WVLT 360” campaign includes VOLTV2GO cellphone content (“VOL” refers to Knoxville's University of Tennessee sports teams, the Volunteers).

“It's not just TV but content delivery,” says Executive VP/General Manager Chris Baker of WVLT 360. “We cross-pollinate on all of our platforms.”

ABC affiliate WATE, the runner-up in 6 p.m. news, attempts to tap niche Web communities, such as an online book club. “Our staff has done a good job of building unusual communities on the Web,” says new President/General Manager Gwen Kinsey.

The philosophy also drives the MyNetworkTV (MNT) outlet, which runs on WVLT's digital channel. Owner Gray Television recently rebranded it “MyVLT2,” making it a haven for local programming, such as shows hosted by the coaches of area teams. Baker says he saw an immediate bump in ratings when MNT scrapped its telenovelas; the network's IFL Battleground is also finding viewers: “People are starting to figure out where we are.”

Situated on the banks of the Tennessee River, in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, Knoxville is “a small, Southern university town,” says WBIR's Lee. “If you misbehave here, your mother's gonna find out about it.”

The economy in Nielsen's No. 60 market is holding steady. While automotive advertising is generally down, managers say local dealerships have stepped up their presence. Pharmaceutical advertising is lagging, but such segments as telecommunications have picked up the slack.

The market brought in an estimated $81.6 million in 2006, up from $74.2 million the year before, according to BIA Financial. WBIR handily won in 2005 (the latest year station tallies are available), racking up $26.1 million to finish ahead of Young Broadcasting's WATE ($17.1 million), WVLT ($13.9 million) and the runner-up Fox and CW outlets.

Comcast is the dominant cable player, while Charter has a strong presence in the market's outlying communities. Scripps Networks, which owns Food Network and HGTV, among other cable networks, is based in Knoxville and sometimes partners with WBIR on projects.

As for its “Straight from the Heart” tagline, WBIR won't be losing it anytime soon. “It really fits our community,” says Lee. “They picked the right one.”

Next: Charlotte, N.C.