Market Eye: Going 'Rouge'

People, dollars, robust culture are captial gains in Baton Rouge
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About 90 minutes from New Orleans, Baton Rouge offers many similar cultural attractions: sports teams with rabid local followings, a robust restaurant scene, lots of live music and a town rich with character, and characters. While Baton Rouge doesn't get the level of tourism the Big Easy does, being the state capital brings some insulation from economic downturns.

Add in a lively chemical processing/refinery landscape and colleges including LSU and Southern University, and Baton Rouge is doing just fine. While it is No. 94 among Nielsen DMAs, Baton Rouge ranks an impressive 71st in terms of revenue, according to BIA/Kelsey. "We tend to keep pace above the national average," says Rocky Daboval, general manager at WBRZ. "Because of the [economic] diversity in the market, we weather the bad times better than markets with one source of employment."

Baton Rouge is largely a two-horse race in terms of news, with Raycom's WAFB winning the ratings competitions. The CBS affiliate won total-day ratings easily in the February sweeps and took primetime, morning, early evening and late news honors too, the latter with a whopping 17 household rating/35.9 share, ahead of WBRZ's 7.3/15.5.

WAFB and WBRZ, an ABC affiliate owned by the Manship family, offer stark contrasts. While WBRZ benefits from local ownership (which also holds The Advocate daily newspaper), the Manships own just two full-power TV stations. Raycom, on the other hand, owns or provides services to 48 stations and flexes its muscle with homegrown shows like RightThisMinute (a partnership with two other station groups) and America Now.

Daboval notes the Manships' considerable commitment to the Baton Rouge community but concedes the lack of scale can be a challenge. "You don't have the resources of other groups," he says. "In terms of programming, it's more difficult to compete against a multi-station group."

WBRZ does enjoy some syndication blue chips, such as Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, while Katie Couric's new talk show, Katie, will come on board this fall.

WAFB's first-rate news operation befits a general manager with big-time news chops. Before taking over WAFB, Sandy Breland held the news director job at WWL New Orleans for 11 years and at KTVK Phoenix for a few more. "The keys are consistency and commitment to quality in our local news," Breland says. "When you're a strong No. 1, you have a target on your back. You have to be consistent every day."

WAFB was the first, and remains the only, station in the market to go live with news at 4:30 a.m. WAFB spends each Friday during the May sweeps schlepping around the market for its "Road Trip" franchise. Raycom also owns MyNetworkTV affiliate WBXH, which airs primetime 7-9 p.m. and local news at 9.

White Knight owns NBC affiliate WVLA, which has an operating agreement with ComCorp of America's Fox affiliate, WGMB. ComCorp also has CW station WBRL. The main subscription TV operator is Cox.

Baton Rouge stations are deploying all available platforms to extend their reach. WBRZ has news on its dot-two channel and weather on its dot-three. Manship, whose other station is KRGV Weslaco (Texas), has low-power independent WBTR, which features Baton Rouge Today in prime. "That gives us an opportunity to provide additional local programming," says Daboval.

Raycom owns Cable Channel 9, which repeats WAFB newscasts (Breland says a number of local restaurants keep the cable channel on for customers), and the station is bullish on its news and weather mobile apps. The mobile site is getting 5½-6 million page views a month, says Breland. "For a market this size, we feel pretty good about those numbers," she says.

Court shows dominate daytime on WGMB, giving way to double-runs of Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory. WVLA goes for populist branding in its "We Tell Your Stories Every Day" tagline.

While political spending has not amounted to much so far this year, the Baton Rouge political arena is red meat for the newsrooms. "It's a great town for journalists," says Breland. "Everybody knows how interesting Louisiana politics can be."

It's stormy season now in Baton Rouge, and the market was significantly affected by Katrina seven years ago. The capital received scores of residents, both temporary and permanent; it was where many of the refugees bought replacement furniture, clothes and cars. Breland was forced out of her home during the hurricane, commuting from Baton Rouge for 10 months during the rebuild. Daboval, who has been at WBRZ for 32 years, was happy to welcome the displaced WGNO New Orleans staffers to the station when Tribune's NOLA duopoly, WGNO/WNOL, was inoperable.

Daboval says some 40 WGNO staffers stayed at WBRZ while broadcasting from Baton Rouge. "We had stories to tell and a responsibility to the community," he recalls. "It's what stations are supposed to do. It's something I'm proud to be associated with."

E-mail comments to mmalone@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @BCMikeMalone

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