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Very Much in the Hunt - Broadcasting & Cable

Very Much in the Hunt

Alabama market looking forward to gubernatorial runoff
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The Huntsville area offers the best of both worlds: the charm and relaxed pace of a Deep South market, with an intense and highly sophisticated business climate. Home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and a number of other high-tech and aerospace concerns, such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing facilities, Huntsville recently added Forbes’ “Top Ten Best Places for Business and Careers” honors to a long list of plaudits from the business media.

“We’ve got a lot of rocket scientists here,” says WAFF VP/General Manager Vanessa Oubre.

General managers say there’s way more news happening than one might expect from DMA No. 81. Along with a Republican runoff for the governor’s offi ce next month that will be a boon for stations, there’s big business, crime, college football and, of course, the dreadful oil spill. The market is in northern Alabama, but the Gulf Coast is a popular vacation destination, and bad news along the shore means the whole state takes the economic hit.

“It’s less than a six-hour drive to the beach,” says WHNT President/General Manager Stan Pylant. “It’s a big beach community, so we’re keeping everybody abreast of what’s happening down there.”

WAFF partnered with four other Raycom stations to air the live primetime special Coastal Crisis: Impact Alabama, premiering June 23. “That’s the advantage of having stations all over the state,” Oubre points out. “It should be a very good special.”

The market offers varied news philosophies. Among the big two players, Oubre says WAFF thrives on consistent, understated product, while Pylant says WHNT’s hard-hitting investigative work makes it stand out. “We tackle subjects others don’t want to tackle,” he says. “It takes a little longer to pull together, but it pays off for us.”

WAAY, meanwhile, tends to focus on the positive stories in the market. “My philosophy is not to offer three of the same thing in the market,” says VP/General Manager Art Lanham. “We’re trying to give Huntsville another great choice for news.”

None of the stations air their news in high-definition yet. A diary market, Huntsville is awaiting May sweeps results. NBC affiliate WAFF won total day and primetime household ratings in February, along with morning, evening and late news—the latter with a 14.0 household rating/ 28 share, topping Local TV-owned WHNT’s 12.0 rating/ 23 share. The revenue race was close as well: WAFF grabbed $12.9 million in 2009, according to BIA/Kelsey, ahead of CBS affiliate WHNT’s $12.2 million.

WAFF got a boost from the Olympics in February, but succeeds year-round in getting viewers to switch to its news out of prime. “We’ve got a good, loyal audience,” Oubre says. “Day in and day out, they know we give them solid product.”

Mornings are shaping up to be a battle. WAFF introduced a new anchor team in May, and Calkins Media’s ABC affiliate WAAY has paired sports guy T.W. Starr with anchor Erin Dacy. “Together, they’ve livened up 5-7 a.m.,” Lanham says.

Rounding out the market are Grant Communications’ Fox affiliate WZDX, which airs MyNetworkTV (MNT) on its .2 channel, and Lockwood Broadcasting’s CW affiliate WHDF. WZDX offers news at 9 p.m., comprised of the network’s content and reportage dug up by a pair of local reporters and a meteorologist. Assistant General Manager Charlene Brueggeman says the station is more about family entertainment and has a pair of cheerleaders, named Bethany and Stephanie, who serve as “My8 Divas,” hosting events and programs on behalf of the local MNT.

“They show that young women can be beautiful and athletic and still have brains,” Brueggeman says.

Speaking of digital channels, few stations do more with theirs than WHNT. In addition to retro television channel RTV and double runs of Dr. Oz, WHNT2 debuted a 7 a.m. news in September and then a 9 p.m. news in February (Station to Station, Feb. 8). Both newscasts are unique to the digital channel, featuring interactive elements such as anchors reading viewer’s e-mails, and give WHNT a local news presence when the competition is typically airing network programming.

The digital tier also comes in handy during political season. There were loads of local and state elections June 1; WHNT2 held debates leading up to the various elections, followed by wall-to-wall coverage on Election Day. “We got a lot of good, positive feedback from the community,” Pylant says. “We look at our .2 as a way we can do more of those types of non-traditional programming.”

CW outlet WHDF may eventually be a player in the local news game, too. Dale Stafford shifted from WAFF general sales manager to general manager at WHDF. The station does not do news, but “it’s something we’d like to do down the road,” Stafford says.

Oil mess aside, the news out of Hunstville is good these days. Local business is thriving, a military-base realignment is slated to bring in another 25,000 or so residents, and a billion-dollar office/retail park known as Redstone Gateway that’s just getting underway will also bring jobs and revenue. And the stations are looking forward to that July 13 gubernatorial runoff and the windfall it will bring. Says Lanham: “It’s a very healthy and growing market right now.”

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

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