Market Eye: Rocked by Mother Nature

Central Arkansas takes natural disasters on the chin
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Severe weather is common this time of year in Little Rock–Pine Bluff, Ark., but the past few months have been particularly brutal. February saw blizzard conditions, April had tornadoes and May brought on flooding so severe that it closed Interstate 40, a vital artery that bisects the market and connects Little Rock with Memphis, Tenn.

“Farmland was flooded, the levees are at their max,” says David Craft, interim general manager and VP of marketing at KTHV. “It’s just a bad deal.”

The stations in DMA No. 56 have been scrambling to cover the disasters and other major news events. Craft says KTHV bumped primetime for three nights in late April to cover tornadoes, the royal wedding and an address by President Obama.

Little Rock’s local outlets are increasingly using social media to get news reports out, too. When Nick Genty moved from the KTHV newsroom to KATV in February (he was named KATV news director in April), he set out to boost the station’s Facebook presence; a series of promotions that includes $100 gift card giveaways has elevated KATV’s number of Facebook pals from 17,000 to 40,000-plus.

Multiple station executives in Little Rock say social media has been essential to transmitting vital news amidst the natural disasters, especially when electricity is knocked out and smartphones emerge as a lifeline. “It’s a great connection with viewers,” Genty says. “We can talk with them and see what’s on their mind, and they can give us story ideas.”

KTHV has 54,000-plus Facebook friends, which Craft says is tops among Gannett’s stations. KTHV is a strong competitor on all fronts. The CBS affiliate won primetime in the February sweeps by a mile, and took late news with a 10.1 household rating and 20.8 share—just ahead of ABC affiliate KATV’s 9.7 rating/20 share. Allbritton’s KATV won total-day ratings in February, along with the 6 a.m. and early evening news races.

HD has hit the market in a big way. KTHV was fi rst up with local HD early this year. Nexstar NBC affiliate KARK and Newport TV’s KLRT flipped on HD in April. KATV has yet to switch to local hi-def. “There’s a little bit of an HD war going on,” says Chuck Spohn, VP and general manager at KLRT-KASN. “Our HD is definitely one of the more stunning visuals in the market.”

Newport has a Fox-CW duopoly. Nexstar has the NBC-MyNetworkTV duo KARK-KARZ. Nexstar uses its Little Rock operations as a hub; it’s looking to expand the hub’s capacity in mid-June to handle eight stations’ master control, up from the current five, and with room for more (broadcastingcable.com/May16). The build-out paves the way for Nexstar to launch HD in more markets.

“It makes much more sense to invest in a hub architecture when you are building up an HD platform, rather than having to do those upgrades in each of the stations,” Blake Russell, Nexstar senior VP of station operations, told B&C. “It’s a much more cost-effective transition path.”

There have been significant management changes at the Little Rock stations. Larry Audas, former KTHV president/GM, was named to the top spot at Gannett’s WFMY Greensboro (N.C.) in April. Craft, the station’s VP of marketing, is interim GM. Genty succeeded KATV’s longtime news director Randy Dixon after Dixon left in February to start a production company.

Stations are doing all they can to get ahead. KLRT in February marked the one-year anniversary of its 10 p.m. news, which Spohn says is picking up momentum. Industry watchers in Little Rock say KARZ has trimmed its newscasts in the morning and evening; General Manager Rick Rogala did not return calls for comment. KATV has an innovative play with its “Filler Up” newscasts—mini news shows airing on screens affixed to gas pumps at select Shell stations in the market. The initiative debuted about two months ago. The programs run 30 seconds to a minute and are updated four or five times a day. Filler Up is a content play, as opposed to a sponsorship opportunity for local marketers. “There were a couple bugs to work out, but it seems to be working really well,” Genty says. “It’s a captive audience. We hope to expand it.”

KTHV’s 6:30 p.m. newscast recently turned two, and the station debuted the market’s first 4:30 a.m. news late last year. A marketer at heart, Craft says KTHV thrives on a series of words starting with F, including fair, factual, family-friendly and even fun. The fun approach is epitomized by a stray cat named Joey that the station has essentially adopted and built a house for in its outdoor set that’s dubbed the “weather garden”. Since tallying Facebook friends is all the rage, it’s worth noting that Joey has close to 12,000 digital pals—most of them human.

Craft says Gannett brass is searching hard for a general manager, but that KTHV, like the feline Joey, is in good hands with the current local management. “We have the same corporate people over our stations,” he says. “It’s really just business as usual.” —additional reporting by Leslie Jaye Goff

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

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