Spanning the Gulf

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February is party time in this area, known as the "Red Neck Riviera." Folks here know it was Mobile, not the better-known New Orleans, that hosted the country's first Mardi Gras celebration, in 1703.

Television is undergoing some changes in this sprawling market, which covers parts of Alabama, Florida and Mississippi. Emmis-owned Fox affiliate WALA-TV recently pulled out of head-to-head news competition at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m., moving its local newscasts to 5 p.m. and 9 p.m.

Although the market's population is about evenly split between Alabama (48%) and Florida (49%), most news shops are headquartered in Mobile and concentrate on Alabama news. As a result, Sinclair's WEAR, the Pensacola, Fla.-based ABC affiliate, wins the total-households crown for both early and late news.

"People like to watch TV news from their local station, not necessarily from a station broadcasting from another state," concedes Joe Goleniowski, general manager at CBS affiliate WKRG, owned by Media General.

Local GMs like to gripe about Nielsen diary placement in this non-metered market. Having too many diaries in one state tends to favor certain stations, they say. "Then they have to 'weight' the diaries, and that opens it up for greater and greater error," Goleniowski says.

Business has been good, however. The market took an advertising hit in 2001 but recovered fully in 2002, helped by the infusion of $10 million in revenue from political spending.

BIA Financial Network lists WKRG as the top-billing station in the market in 2002 ($20.9 million), followed closely by WEAR ($20.5 million). Market revenue totaled about $71 million last year, according to figures collected by a local accounting firm.

Two other duopolies exist here. Emmis acquired WB affiliate WBPG in March 2003. Eight months later, Sinclair picked up independent WFGX.

Broadcasters are about to get some additional cable competition. Comcast recently shuttered its Mobile sales operation to join Cox and MediaCom in OnMedia, a de facto local interconnect.

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