'Rocky' Road

Losing Vols team dampens Knoxville spirits

Tennessean Al Gore was victimized by the phrase “fuzzy math” in the 2000 presidential debates, and similarly, there are some quirky things going on with the numbers in Knoxville. WBIR's popular Live at Five program has moved to an earlier time slot and adopted a new name, Live at Five at Four. WBXX features a 12-minute newscast at 10 each night, and goes off the clock thereafter, with shows starting at 10:12, 10:42, 11:12, etc. That gives Nielsen fits and makes looking at late-news ratings a little tough.

Perhaps most jarring, the beloved University of Tennessee Volunteers football squad had a dismal 4-7 record at presstime, spelling the end of coach Phillip Fulmer's 17-year reign. Fans still warble “Rocky Top” at Neyland Stadium, but a losing team takes a bite out of business. “The market is absolutely affected by the lack of success the Vols have had this year,” says WVLT Executive VP/General Manager Chris Baker.

Gannett's NBC affiliate WBIR is at the top of the standings, easily winning total day household ratings in May along with morning, evening and late news. Gray Television's CBS outlet WVLT won primetime, trailed by Young Broadcasting's ABC affiliate WATE. Raycom owns Fox outlet WTNZ, Acme has CW affiliate WBXX, and WVLT airs MyNetworkTV on its digital channel. Comcast is the dominant cable player, while Charter has a presence, too.

Health care and the automobile aftermarket are robust industries in Knoxville. The university, with 26,000 students, and aluminum manufacturer Alcoa are major employers.

Station managers offer a mixed message about local business. “Eastern Tennessee seems to have fared fairly well,” says WATE President/General Manager Gwen Kinsey. “We're not unscathed, but the bottom hasn't fallen out either.” Another executive, who requested anonymity to offer a blunt assessment, says he hadn't seen it this bad in his career. Compared to slowdowns in the 1980s and '90s, he says, panic levels are running much higher.

Managers describe the No. 59 DMA as a tranquil place dotted with friendly people. “It's a medium-sized Southern college town,” says WBIR President/General Manager Jeff Lee. “Most days there's not more than a half-hour of news here.” That explains the success of Live at Five at Four, which features lighter fare but can run with hard news when the situation calls for it. (About that cumbersome name, Lee says viewers started calling it that when WBIR switched the time, and it just may stick.)

Those college viewers are key to WBXX's strategy. VP/General Manager Dan Phillippi says the station is the top CW affiliate in the country by several ratings measurements, the top-ranking station for Steve Wilkos, and does well with young-skewing morning program The Daily Buzz, which is owned by Acme.

“The station has always been well-accepted in the market,” he says, citing its former WB days.

The young demo is also vital to WTNZ, which General Sales Manager Zachary Smith says does exceptionally well with double runs of Two and a Half Men at 7 p.m. and primetime shows like Fringe and House, along with a 10 p.m. news produced by WATE.

Even when Tennessee's gridiron gang hits rough patches, the massive university keeps life in Knoxville fairly stable. “We tend to be buffered here,” Smith says. “The upside is, we don't see the valleys. [But] the downside is, we don't see the peaks.”

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