Market Eye: King of the 'The Hill'

While one blue-chip station is for sale, the market leader is only getting stronger
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Coalitions on Capitol Hill are famously hard to come by, but partnerships are flourishing in Washington, D.C., television. All the major stations have a significant ally: WRC shares space with NBC News, Gannett’s WUSA has sister USA Today, Fox’s WTTG features the only D.C. duopoly and WJLA shares its newsroom with The Politico as well as cable’s NewsChannel 8. Bill Lord, WJLA VP and general manager, mentions “an endless supply of pundits,” thanks to the Politico posse. “You can’t have too many smart people walking around the newsroom,” Lord says.

All eyes are on WJLA, as parent Allbritton has put its stations on the block, separate from Politico. Top-flight stations in Top 10 markets don’t go on sale very often. “It’s got everyone interested,” says Ashley Messina, WDCW VP and general manager. “It’s a strong station with a lot of potential.”

WJLA gave everything it had to win 11 p.m. news in the May sweeps and can boast that it did so. The ABC affiliate “eked out” the Monday-Friday late news race, says Lord, while NBC-owned WRC won the Monday-Sunday contest at 11—along with the rest of the news battles. “Any time you knock off WRC, you feel like you’ve done a good job,” says Lord, who credits good content, savvy promotion and a strong primetime lead-in.

Yet WRC remains the station to beat. While other NBC-owned stations suffered mightily when seemingly indifferent GE was at the helm, WRC and its stellar news reputation avoided a slide. Comcast’s acquisition of NBC has brought in considerable, and tangible, local resources; one competitor called it a “deluge.” WRC can thank Comcast for its investigative team, new bureaus in northern Virginia and Maryland’s Prince George’s County, and a state-of-the-art storm-chasing vehicle.

Add a robust performance from the syndicated Steve Harvey (“He brings a different audience to WRC,” says Jackie Bradford, president/GM) and Ellen (“On fire,” Bradford notes) in daytime, and WRC is hotter than the Beltway in August. “Comcast believes in broadcasting and investing in good programming,” says Bradford. Adds Matt Glassman, WRC assistant news director: “We’ve made great investments, and it’s really paying off in the numbers.”

WRC in May put up a 4.5 household rating/10 share at 11 p.m. (Monday-Sunday), ahead of WJLA’s 4/9, along with a leading 2/7 in adults 25-54; Bradford says WRC grew its share in the demo 87% coming out of primetime. WJLA and WUSA were deadlocked in prime with a 4.5/8, ahead of WRC’s 3.8/7.

Gannett owns CBS affiilate WUSA. Fox owns WTTG, which cranks out 48.5 hours of news per week, and MyNetworkTV station WDCA. Tribune has CW affiliate WDCW; Messina, promoted to GM in late 2010, says Tribune’s exit from bankruptcy was “great for morale.”

The market has a second NBC affiliate in Nexstar’s WHAG, licensed to Hagerstown, Md. The Spanishlanguage options include Univision’s WFDC and Telemundo affiliate WZDC. Allbritton’s NewsChannel 8 and Telemundo have a unique venture—a joint program that airs both in Spanish and English. Called Agenda, the current events program debuted June 6. “It’s an interesting experiment,” says Lord. “It’s a great way to serve a growing community.”

DMA No. 8’s subscription TV operators include Comcast and FiOS, along with Cox in the Virginia suburbs.

WRC took in an estimated $128 million in revenue last year, according to BIA/Kelsey, ahead of WJLA and WTTG, both at an estimated $105 million.

Multicast offerings give D.C. viewers a plethora of over-the-air choices. WDCW has oldies on This TV and Antenna TV, WJLA has Live Well Network and Me-TV, WUSA airs Bounce TV, while WRC features Cozi TV, along with homegrown programs focusing on news and lifestyle. “There are some local angles on that channel that make it unique in a crowded field,” says Glassman.

The Washington economy is going gangbusters. It is the U.S.’ No. 5 market in TV revenue, according to BIA/Kelsey, ahead of larger markets Philadelphia and Boston. Political spending was, not surprisingly, off the charts last year, especially since Virginia was a battleground state. “We got off to a great start, and it’s largely continued,” says Lord.

Rookies for this fall include Bethenny and TMZ Live on the Fox stations and Arsenio Hall on WDCW. Local weather fixture Bob Ryan got a big sendoff from WJLA when he retired last month. Sue Palka has been WTTG’s chief meteorologist for more than 25 years, and Scott Smith recently joined the team as sports director. WRC’s sports department is enriched by the local Comcast SportsNet outfit.

Speaking of teamwork, Washington’s sports franchises, which for years had similar approval ratings to those of Congress, have people buzzing about highlightreel athletes such as Bryce Harper of the Nationals and Robert Griffin III of the Redskins. The local teams are something both sides of the aisle can agree on—a rarity in Washington. “It’s exciting for the market to have people coming out to games,” says Messina, “and feeling good about the teams.”

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

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