Rust Belt No More



Local Flavor

With technology leading the way in transforming the economy, Pittsburgh is outgrowing its reputation as a remnant of the Rust Belt. Although the population is growing, slightly, the market continues to lose ground among Nielsen DMAs, dropping another spot, to 22, in the latest reshuffle. Once a top-10 market, it was No. 19 five years ago.

"It's not really that we are going down; it's that some other markets are growing faster," said Bob Bee, director of sales at WTAE-TV. "The actual dollars spent in the market will continue to grow, but we may get a smaller share of the overall spending."

The television market is highly competitive. WTAE-TV and WPXI(TV) have duked it out in the morning news race for years and were locked in a virtual tie during the May 2003 sweeps. KDKA-TV, handicapped by a poor CBS morning offering, recently added a one-hour news block at 9 a.m.

Sometimes, the fight to be first can backfire. In late September, a WPXI crew covering a fatal traffic accident inadvertently showed close-up shots of the vehicle, which was recognized by the victim's nine children, who were watching the early-evening newscast. The faux pas prompted a personal apology from News Director Pat Maday.

Both WPXI and WTAE-TV have resorted to on-air giveaways to attract viewers during sweeps. KDKA-TV disdains the practice, which Viacom TV chief Fred Reynolds has said "takes the seriousness out of journalism … and we won't do it."

Bee doubts that contests have much impact on ratings anyway. "It's a fun thing for the viewer, but it doesn't really move the needle that much."

Rolling hills make over-the-air reception spotty, so cable plays a strong role here. More than 80% of the market's households subscribe; another 10% have linked up with satellite. Cox's Pittsburgh Cable News Channel reaches about 800,000 households.

WPGH-TV created a stir in April when it fired a dozen news employees in a conversion to Sinclair's "News Central" operation. General Manager Alan Frank would not comment on the decision.