Local News Trumps All - Broadcasting & Cable

Local News Trumps All

Politics, environment are big draws
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The top-rated program in Portland, Maine, during February sweeps was not American Idol or the Torino Winter Olympics; it was a local newscast. Market leader WCSH averaged an impressive 18 rating/36 share for its 6 p.m. news. The appetite for local news in Nielsen’s 74th market is fierce, and so is the competition.

While CBS affiliate WGME and ABC outlet WMTW earn solid news ratings, Gannett Broadcasting-owned WCSH leads the race. The station broadcasts 42 hours of local news per week, winning all news dayparts, and produces a 10 p.m. newscast for Pegasus Communications’ WB affiliate (and future CW station) WPXT. (Pegasus’ UPN affiliate, WPME, may go with Fox’s My Network TV in September.)

Local and state news are big draws, particularly stories on politics and the environment. “We don’t have major-league sports here; we have politics,” says WCSH General Manager Steve Thaxton. “We don’t have crime and traffic here, so issues can dominate.”

WCSH collaborates on news with WLBZ, Gannett’s station in Bangor. The stations share news operations, centralcasting out of Portland. (Bangor simulcasts some WCSH news, with local cut-ins.) Both offer versions of NBC’s local-weather channel, Weather Plus.

The market, which includes nearby Auburn and Lewiston and extends down the coast to Kennebunkport, hosts three major station owners: Hearst-Argyle Television, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Gannett. Station managers say news operations are better for it.

Since acquiring WMTW two years ago, Hearst-Argyle has added a 5 a.m. hour to local morning news and ratcheted up promotion. “We’ve improved the content and made it a faster-paced news product,” says General Manager Ken Bauder.

WMTW does best at 6 p.m., with a Dr. Phil lead-in. In fact, 6 p.m. is the highest-rated news time for all stations. “This is an early-to-bed, early-to-rise market,” says Thaxton.

Max Media-owned WPFO, a Pax affiliate before it switched to Fox in 2003, has no local news, but its syndicated comedies, including Seinfeld and Frasier, rate well.

The market’s geographic isolation limits broadcasters’ revenue opportunities. Stations took in $48.1 million in gross revenue in 2004, up from $44.2 million the year before, according to BIA Financial. Ad revenue is limited, in part, because the pool of local clients is small. And with a statewide ban on outdoor ads, stations’ own off-TV advertising is mainly on the radio.

Says Bauder, “This is a very environmentally conscious state. Mainers are fiercely proud of the beauty of their state.”

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