Market Eye: Room at the Top

WJXT marks 10 years of independence, but its rivals are coming on fast
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When various Fox affiliates started flying the coop last summer, the phone belonging to Bob Ellis, WJXT Jacksonville vice president and general manager, began to buzz. After all, WJXT is held up as the model of a station finding its way after a difficult split with a network, and the general managers at the former Fox affiliates recast as independents wanted a peek at the WJXT blueprints.

Ellis won’t give up his strategy, but he says unaffiliated stations can, against the odds, thrive. “It can be done wildly successfully, with the right group of people who focus on what matters the most to the community,” Ellis says.

It’s been 10 years since the Post-Newsweek station and CBS broke off their relationship, and Ellis asserts WJXT has never been stronger. “We’ve got a great brand as the local station,” he says. “Viewers understand what that means and look to us for information they want and need.”

Yet there are reasons stations put up with those demanding networks, the more obvious ones being primetime hits and NFL games. CBS affiliate WTEV in Jacksonville enjoys both, as well as a lively newsroom, which powered it to easy total-day and primetime household ratings race wins in the November sweeps. WJXT cruised to morning and early evening news titles, but WTEV won 11 p.m. with a 4.9 household rating/9 share, ahead of WTLV’s 3.9/7 and WJXT’s 2.7/5. (WJXT beat Newport Television’s Fox affiliate, WAWS, at 10.)

Newport manages WTEV for High Plains Broadcasting. Jim Zerwekh, VP/GM of the operation, says the CBS-Fox pair reaches a wide swath of demographic groups. “We found the two best networks in Fox and CBS,” he says. “We value what they do, and they value what we do.”

Other Jacksonville players include Gannett duopoly WTLV (NBC) and WJXX (ABC), and Nexstar’s CW affiliate WCWJ. Comcast is the market’s major subscription TV operator.

Subchannels expand the options in northern Florida. WTEV has a MyNetworkTV/Me-TV hybrid on its digital tier. WTEV has TheCoolTV. WCWJ has Bounce TV, in a market that’s about 12% African-American, according to BIA/Kelsey. The market is not measured by Nielsen, but Marc Hefner, WCWJ GM, says Bounce has gotten a robust reception from viewers and advertisers. “We’ve had real nice success out of the gate,” he says, “measured by dollars.”

Stations are unveiling new offerings. WJXT, which recently adopted Rentrak’s measurement in addition to Nielsen’s, has a Sunday politics show called This Week in Jacksonville and a Sunday-night sports program. Ellis is thinking about launching weekend morning news. WCWJ has offbeat shows focused on local music (Your Jax Music), roller derby (Jacksonville Roller Girls) and apparitions (Local Haunts). “It’s like Ghost Hunters, but local,” says Hefner.

Jacksonville hosted a Republican debate Jan. 26 and saw healthy political spending in advance of Florida’s vital Jan. 31 primary. “As soon as South Carolina ended, the focus became Florida,” says Ellis.

While the Sun Belt has been hit particularly hard by home foreclosures, Jacksonville, with a major military presence and a vibrant port, has more than held its own economically. BIA/Kelsey has the No. 50 DMA at No. 41 in terms of revenue. “I think Florida has been hit harder than the rest of the country, but Jacksonville just seems to be doing a little better,” says Hefner.

WJXT, with syndication staples such as Everybody Loves Raymond and The Big Bang Theory in primetime, is not looking to be an affiliate again anytime soon. “We are the local station,” Ellis says. “That’s the way we live and the way we operate. That’s our future.”

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

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