Running WNEP Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pa., one of the true blowtorch stations around the nation, is something of a dream for Chuck Morgan. He has been with the station 34 years, starting off as an account executive, and even watched it growing up. He was particularly smitten with a children’s show called The Land of Hatchy Milatchy, and took great pains to make sure he didn’t miss it. “I went to afternoon kindergarten,” Morgan says, “just so I could watch the show.”
WNEP inspires that kind of dedication in viewers. “It’s the 800-pound gorilla and has been that way for many, many years,” says Lou Abitabilo, former WBRE general manager, who now runs a Cruise One travel franchise. “It’s tough to get people to change their viewing habits.”
The other stations are trying. NBC affiliate WBRE has added a LiveU mobile backpack setup to increase its newsgathering breadth in DMA No. 55. “It’s an enormous market, and it has topographical challenges,” says Robert Bee, VP and general manager.
Nexstar owns WBRE and has an operating agreement with Mission Broadcasting’s WYOU, the local CBS affiliate, which had scrapped all local news in 2009. Now Rentrak-rated, the pair produces a vast lineup of news, including programs at 11 a.m., 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., and also puts together a 10 p.m. newscast for Fox affiliate WOLF. The 7 p.m. is fairly new. “Commuters can get home, eat dinner and then sit and watch,” says Gina Schreiber, WYOU station manager.
Sinclair owns WOLF and MyNetworkTV affiliate WQMY, while closely aligned Cunningham Broadcasting has CW station WSWB. Sinclair grabbed the trio in its $90 million acquisition of the New Age group in 2013.
WNEP was part of Local TV, which was acquired by Tribune. Trib then spun three from that group over to Dreamcatcher Broadcasting due to newspaper-broadcast ownership limitations. Dreamcatcher is run by Ed Wilson, former Tribune Broadcasting president.
Way Out in Front
How dominant is WNEP? The ABC affiliate posted a 6.1 household rating/ 23.3 share in November’s totalday ratings, ahead of WBRE’s 2.3/8.7. Its 7.8/14.8 in prime is comfortably ahead of WYOU’s 6.1/11.6. WNEP’s 6 a.m. news showed a 62.3 share; its 6 p.m. news a 44.2. “We’re able to be live in more places, with more people, than anybody else,” says Morgan. The station’s 5 a.m. news, he adds, beats all competitors’ top newscasts all day.
WNEP has the market’s lone 4:30 a.m. news. Outside of extreme weather or major breaking news, Bee has little interest in going live at that hour. “I don’t think this market demands it,” he says.
Television veterans in Wilkes-Barre/ Scranton say the onscreen quality of the stations is closer than the ratings indicate, but getting viewers to change channels is a serious challenge.
Due in part to those topographical issues, satellite television has a huge presence. Cable subs are divided between Comcast and Blue Ridge. Also divided is football allegiance: Half the market roots for the Steelers and half for the Eagles. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton dropped a lone DMA slot in the most recent Nielsen rankings.
The stations had a giant story when Eric Frein eluded the police in the mountains for a month and a half late last year following the murder of a Pennsylvania state trooper. “I don’t know how it could’ve been more heartbreaking,” says Bee of the trooper’s funeral. “I am very proud of our team for handling it with dignity.”
On a lighter note, the “Apparently” kid hails from Wilkes-Barre. Chubbycheeked Noah Ritter was interviewed at the state fair in August by WNEP and became a media darling for his repeated utterance of the word “apparently.” He ended up on Good Morning America and Ellen, and spawned about a thousand headlines with “Apparently” in them. The year-end’s various best-of compilations worldwide spawned new interest in the clip, says Morgan, which has close to 19 million views on YouTube.
The market is a dismal No. 71 in terms of revenue, reports BIA/Kelsey, but station managers suggest things are headed back in the right direction. Fracking has been an economic boon. Poconos tourism is robust. An early January cold snap had temperatures in the single digits, but that passed. “People gripe about the cold,” says Morgan. “But at the end of the day, it’s a great place to raise a family and do business.”
'GOOD TIMES,' GOOD NEWS FOR WNEP DOT-TWO
There are many ways to depict WNEP’s news dominance, one of them being that its 10 p.m. news, airing on a dot-two channel, beats the 10 p.m. on WOLF. WNEP-D2 put up a 2 household rating/4.2 share in November, while WOLF had a 1.9/4.1. WNEP-D2 posted a 1.3 in the 25-54 demo, also tops.
“Newswatch 16” pops that number without carriage from the satellite TV players, and DBS penetration is close to 40% in the market, notes Chuck Morgan, president and general manager. “That property does terrific,” he says.
The dot-two airs Antenna TV, with either Good Times or Newhart leading in to news, depending on the night. The newscast debuted at the start of 2010, after a deal to produce WOLF’s 10 p.m. expired. At the time, Morgan told B&C it was “a chance to provide what no one else in the market was providing.”