TV War Where Elvis Dwelt

Stations prepare for competitive sweeps

If Elvis were alive today, he'd have to add more television sets to Graceland's famous TV room to keep up with the battle for viewers and revenue share under way in his hometown. After a string of tight sweeps races in the past year, Memphis, Tenn.'s five stations, all backed by big-media companies, are gearing up for what promises to be a dramatic May competition.

Raycom Media's NBC affiliate, WMC, is the longtime market leader. Even with NBC's recent prime time slip, WMC has won early-evening and late news. But weak Olympics ratings in February hit hard. The blanket coverage forced highly rated syndicated shows Dr. Phil and The Oprah Winfrey Show from their afternoon slots, while the station's late news was pushed past its regular 10 p.m. slot on 18 of 30 nights.

No. 2 WREG saw an opening and pounced. The New York Times Co.-owned CBS affiliate took first place in the key 5 and 10 p.m. newscasts, adding to its usual wins in early mornings. “We practically had a clean sweep,” says General Manager Ron Walter. (WMC held onto its lead at 6 p.m.)

WMC General Manager Howard Meagle says February was anomalous. “The Winter Olympics do not perform very well in Southern markets,” he says, noting that overnight ratings showed WMC reclaiming its No. 1 ranking as soon as the Games ended.

Still, WREG has been climbing steadily. Boosted by CBS' strong prime time slate, the station's late-news ratings have improved.

Clear Channel's ABC affiliate WPTY and its UPN affiliate WLMT (which also runs WB programming in late night), once also-rans in late news, are staging comebacks, with new anchors, a larger staff and an Eyewitness News brand. The duopoly's ratings have grown consistently, though WPTY is still third in 10 p.m. news and WLMT's 9 p.m. news still runs second to Fox-owned WHBQ.

However fierce the competition, station managers say the stagnant Memphis economy has tempered revenues, which have hovered around $100 million for the last six years, according to BIA Financial. In 2004, local broadcasters took in $106.7 million, compared to $106.3 million in 2003. “With our market, the bad news is, it doesn't grow,” says the Clear Channel duopoly's General Manager Jack Peck. “The good news is, it hasn't dropped.”

Stations are exploring growth through new platforms, including Web sites and digital stations. Last year, WMC launched two digital multicast stations, a version of NBC's local weather channel WeatherPlus and music-video network The Tube. “This market has gotten so competitive,” says WMC's Meagle. “There is a lot of new investment.”

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