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In this age of rampant TV station consolidation, a hot stand-alone station is a target in every way. Even so, staffers at WVUE New Orleans, the surging Fox affiliate owned by real estate mogul Tom Benson’s Louisiana Media Co., were surprised to see a rival station report that WVUE was being sold to Raycom for $55.6 million, with the news first announced in the October employee newsletter of Raycom’s parent.
WVUE leadership assured staffers that they were not, for the time being, going anywhere. And moods picked up considerably days later when WVUE snagged two national Murrow awards — for overall excellence and news documentary — in New York.
Such is the life of a standout stand-alone station these days. Joe Cook, president and general manager, says WVUE can continue to thrive as a locally owned independent. “We understand the market and people here understand the station,” he says. “Multiple generations in New Orleans own the same business, the same home, the same land, the same restaurants.”
Why This MattersIndependent station groups have to truly set themselves apart to survive in the current economic climate.
Yet it is increasingly difficult to survive these days without all-important scale, whether due to the cold shoulder from syndicators or falling victim to the fickleness of your lone market’s economy.
“Consolidation poses a real challenge for these stations,” says Steve Schwaid, VP of digital strategy at consulting firm CJ&N. “If you’re a No. 1 or a No. 2, you can keep pushing ahead, but can you do it three, four, five years out? It’s hard.”
Sinclair has bagged around $2.8 billion in station acquisitions the past two years. This past summer, Tribune agreed to buy the massive Local TV group, Gannett did a deal to acquire Belo and Media General announced plans to merge with Young Broadcasting.
All the while, a shrinking faction of one-station “groups” continues to plug away. Besides WVUE, the TV one-offs include KTBS Shreveport (La.), WCAX Burlington (Vt.), KLAS Las Vegas, WBRZ Baton Rouge (La.) and WINK Fort Myers (Fla.). A quick scan for common attributes shows some market leaders, some family ownerships and some winning connections (WINK, KLAS and WCAX are CBS affiliates).
Most, if not all, get their share of calls from prospective buyers. “Everybody’s interested,” says Cook. “It’s time-consuming.”
As long as the stations continue to go it alone, they will face daunting challenges, most notably in the battle for syndicated programming. “You’re sitting there as a one-off, hoping the big groups don’t have a station in your market,” says Schwaid.
WVUE has Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, but Cook concedes the next round of negotiations may be bloody. “It’s not an issue now, but it can be/will be some day,” he says.
Solo stations are also hamstrung in their ability to lure talent, share content throughout a group and invest in programming whose costs — and risks — are amortized across many stations. “If we make a bad decision, there’s no other station to spread the misery around,” says Cook.
Yet there are perks to being a stand-alone. WVUE got a glittering new facility in a prime location, thanks in large part to Tom Benson owning the skyscraper it calls home. WCAX, owned by Mount Mansfield Television, enjoys what Peter Martin, coowner/president/ general manager, calls a “short decision chain” that spelled the fast launch of weekend morning news; ideas don’t die in a corporate regional manager’s inbox.
Burlington’s “genuine dinosaur,” as Martin puts it, is not constrained by quarterly earnings and can address the market-specific needs of the DMA, such as staffing up in the three states WCAX broadcasts to — a geographic quirk that might not be fully appreciated from a corporate headquarters. “We think we know the market pretty well,” says Martin. “We have a real good organization, and we make our decisions based on the peculiarities of the market.”
Cook, a longtime New Orleans resident, knows about market peculiarities. He says local ownership plays well in the Crescent City. “You might be more successful here as a locally owned broadcast property than in other markets,” he says. The mélange of momand- pop businesses that make up the city’s rich heritage, he adds, “is a beautiful thing.”