More than 2½ years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, life in the Big Easy's TV biz is returning to normal. Nielsen resumed measuring the market—which slipped from the No. 43 DMA to No. 53—in July, and station managers say the February sweeps are a fair representation of the city.
The rebuild was accompanied by an advertising boom in categories such as home improvement, fast food and automobiles; 30,000 cars were destroyed in the hurricane. Those categories have stabilized, and while crime remains a problem, it seems New Orleans is resembling its pre-storm self more and more.
“We're starting to see some normalcy now,” says WVUE VP/General Manager Vanessa Oubre. “We're getting more people back every day, and we're moving in the right direction.”
New Orleans' population is still down 20% from what it was, and limited available housing appears to be holding that number in check. There's been a reshuffling of the returnees. Many have left the centrally located parishes that were hit so hard by the storm for other corners of the region; the St. Tammany and Jefferson parishes have grown dramatically.
Station executives speak of two lifestyle shifts: Everyone's hungry for news, and many are commuting a little longer, meaning greater demand for early-morning fare.
News content is growing rapidly. CW outlet WNOL added a 9 p.m. news in May 2006, and MyNetworkTV affiliate WUPL added a 9 p.m. four months ago. WDSU debuted Weather Plus earlier this month. Both Fox affiliate WVUE and ABC outlet WGNO are eyeing a 5 a.m. news. “There's an insatiable appetite for news now,” says WGNO/WNOL VP/General Manager Larry Delia. “We've always wanted to be in business at that hour, and decided now is the time to do it.”
New Orleans took in $101.7 million in 2007, according to BIA Financial, up from $93.3 million the year before. Belo's CBS affiliate WWL, which famously stayed on the air throughout the storm, led with $28.8 million in 2006, ahead of Hearst-Argyle's NBC outlet WDSU ($18 million), Emmis' Fox outlet WVUE ($16.3 million) and Tribune's ABC affiliate WGNO ($12.7 million). Tribune also owns the local CW and Belo the MyNetwork outlet; Emmis is looking to sell WVUE.
WWL had a monster February sweeps, winning total day ratings as well as morning, evening and late news. President/General Manager Bud Brown says 60% of his staffers were forced out of their homes by Katrina, meaning they've essentially had two full-time jobs for the past couple of years: working at the station, then heading home to make their houses livable. “Most, if not all, are fixed now,” Brown says. “The mood gets better with each passing day.”
WDSU also reached a building milestone in finishing the construction of a new tower and transmitter just a few weeks ago. The station had been broadcasting at between 25% and 50% power, but is fully operational now with a tower that's based 27 feet above the flood plain. “That was a huge moment for WDSU,” says President/General Manager Joel Vilmenay.
The city has been off to a hot 2008, with the Sugar Bowl, the BCS Championship game, the NBA All-Star Game and, of course, Mardi Gras. Numerous organizations have chosen to host their conferences in the Big Easy. “That's a demonstration of their commitment to our city,” Vilmenay says. “That's really encouraging to see.”