Market Eye: Same ‘Old’ Story in Portland

Amidst change, WCSH is not loosening its grip on mature market
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There are plenty of growth markets around the U.S.; from a population standpoint, however, Portland, Maine is not one of them. Teens go out of state to college and simply never return, at least not to live full time. In their place come retirees who find Portland’s craggy waterfront and cost of living favorable to their golden years, assuming they can weather the winters.

The Portland-Auburn DMA lost a little more than 6,000 people from 2005 to 2010, according to BIA/Kelsey, but a modest population uptick is forecasted for the next five years. Count some station general managers among the new arrivals: Steve Carter, formerly VP of marketing at KUSA Denver, took over market leader WCSH in March after Steve Thaxton shifted to WCPO Cincinnati. David Abel, former WCSH general sales manager, took the GM job at Hearst Television’s WMTW two years ago, around when Tom Humpage grabbed the wheel at Sinclair-owned WGME.

Gannett’s WCSH, an NBC affiliate, is a huge leader in DMA No. 77; Carter notes that May represented the station’s 100th straight sweeps win at 6 p.m. in adults 25-54. He has the crew focused on upping its game to mitigate the ratings haircut stations typically get when shifting from Nielsen diaries to electronic ratings measurement. “My charge is to make sure we maintain our lead, if and when that happens,” he says. “There are things we can do better.”

Carter won’t elaborate on what needs improvement, but WCSH’s game looks pretty solid. The station thrives on well-entrenched talent whose warm on-air demeanor matches up well with Portland’s aging population. A sister station in Bangor, about 130 miles away, gives WCSH greater muscle statewide. “It makes us a much larger news organization,” says Carter. “We cover the state better than anyone because of our presence in Bangor.”

WCSH won all the major news races in May. Portland is among the earliest-to-bed markets in the nation, as evidenced by WCSH’s 16 household rating/35 share at 6 p.m. (ahead of WGME’s 7/15), and 4 rating/19 share at 11 (a narrower win over WGME’s 3/14). “The PUT [People Using Television] levels at 11 p.m. just fall off the map,” says Abel.

WGME, A CBS affiliate, won primetime in May, barely ahead of CMCG Portland-owned Fox affiliate WPFO and Hearst ABC affiliate WMTW. WCSH won total day ratings despite a dismal primetime.

Rounding out the market are New Age Media’s CW outlet WPXT and MPS Media’s MyNetworkTV affiliate WPME, which are cooperated under a joint sales agreement and air in local HD, unlike the larger stations. The pair have a lively local programming strategy, with a dozen homespun shows, though GM Doug Finck favors “original” over “local” when describing the programs. “It’s too easily confused with public access and non-professional programming,” says Finck. “We’re talking much higher caliber here.”

Time Warner Cable is the dominant subscription- TV operator. Portland-Auburn’s primary employers include the University of Maine system, TD Bank and the healthcare industry. Local business is solid, if not spectacular. “The first six months were a little ahead of where it was last year,” says Abel, “but the economy has not rebounded to where it was in the past. But we’re starting to get the sense that it might turn around a little bit.”

Competitors are trying new things in an effort to chip away at WCSH’s eminence. WPFO has a 10 p.m. news that is produced by WGME. WMTW, which has syndication staples Ellen, Dr. Phil, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, in January introduced weekend news from 5 to 8 a.m.

Abel's isn't the only newish face in the WMTW management ranks; Michael Grant took over as general sales manager last year, and former assistant news director Amy Beveridge was upped to newsroom chief in June after George Matz shifted to Hearst cousin KMBC-KCWE Kansas City.

"Changes in front of and behind the camera make us stronger going forward," believes Abel.

WPFO has double runs of Two and a Half Men starting at 7 p.m. WGME has a "Kid Correspondent" initiative with local children reporting on their schools.

WPME-WPXT has a true multiplatform programming strategy, with a channel in local hotel rooms called Maine Visitors Channel and new addition Me-TV on the subchannel tier, whose vintage programs are proving to be a good fit with Portland's senior population. Me-TV is currently available over the air only. When a hardware malfunction shut the channel down recently, Finck was surprised by how many viewers contacted the station. "They said, 'we love it-please tell us it's coming back,'" he says.

The competition has its work cut out in terms of eroding the Gannett station's lead. Carter says WCSH talent, including Pat Callaghan (there since 1979) and Cindy Williams (there since 1989), is as much a part of the local landscape as the lighthouses and rocky shorelines.
"People in this area have grown up watching them, and they still bring it every day," Carter says. "They're into the community and they're into their jobs."

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

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