Savoring Savannah

Historic coastal market is a hub of culture, fun and local TV news
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The festival season is about to kick off in Savannah, Ga., with the Rattlesnake Roundup in March, the Glennville Sweet Onion Festival in May and the Beaufort Water Festival in July. But all bow before Savannah’s famed St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Local residents view the day both as a religious observance and a giant party; March 17 starts with a church service, before the 187th annual parade sees familial clans march down Abercorn Street alongside Clydesdale horses, floats and pipe and drum bands. Estimated attendance is as much as half a million; the merriment continues at the pubs along River Street.

Organizers say it’s the largest St. Patrick’s Day parade after New York’s. But the city’s small size makes it feel downright mammoth. “It’s the largest community event Savannah puts on,” says Bill Cathcart, VP/general manager at WTOC, “and probably the largest event we do.”

The Raycom station starts the coverage at 5 a.m., including the whole of the Mass and the parade. Such dedication to local events is what sets WTOC apart. The CBS affiliate wins the ratings and revenue competition in DMA No. 96 by a country mile. In last November’s sweeps, WTOC at least doubled all of its rivals in totalday household ratings, primetime, morning, early evening and late news. “For 30 years straight, we’ve never lost at 6 and 11 p.m.,” says Cathcart, who has been at the station for 25 of those years. “It’s never been close.”

That said, Media General’s WSAV is a game competitor; the NBC affiliate scores secondplace finishes in all the major races. The station airs MyNetworkTV on its digital tier and reaches the South Carolina portion of the DMA through the bonus channel (Beaufort and resort locale Hilton Head Island are part of the market). With its “My LC 3” branding a nod to South Carolina’s “Low Country,” the sister station launched a 7-8 p.m. news in March 2009, stoking interactivity through Skype and social media.

Having determined there wasn’t an all-encompassing online source of information for the St. Patrick’s Day festivities, WSAV launched savannahstpats.com a year ago. The station also kicked off a 5:30 p.m. news last June. “It’s off to a good start, with 1 [ratings] in the [25- 54] demo,” says Deb Thompson, WSAV VP/ GM. “That’s not bad for a diary market.”

Parkin Broadcasting owns Fox affiliate WTGS, and New Vision has ABC outlet WJCL; the stations are run jointly through a local marketing agreement. Both will move into Morris Communications’ Savannah Morning News building in July or August; the newspaper and stations will work sideby- side to enhance each other’s content offerings. “The plans are under way,” says Scott McBride, who took over as WJCLWTGS president/GM last year. “It’s a great way to bring a lot more news to the market.”

Southern TV owns the CW outlet, WGSA.

TV business is up around 10% so far this year, say the GMs. A diverse economy has helped Savannah weather the recent downturn: manufacturing, ports, tourism and a huge military presence are the four economic pillars. Tourists are drawn to Savannah’s rich history and abundant local flavor, which was detailed in the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. All five military branches are represented here, adding an estimated $4.5-$5 billion to local coffers each year.

“We do as much supportive coverage as we can of the military,” says WTOC’s Cathcart, including his own on-air editorials. “Any time I can spotlight their accomplishments, I will.”

WTOC added 4 p.m. news last fall. With its long-tenured anchors and legacy status, the station shows no signs of letting up. “Watching our news,” says Cathcart, “is literally a generational habit here.”

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

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