Watching Wachovia

Charlotte still growing, but banking woes mount
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This increasingly cosmopolitan city has been going through a lot of changes, and that's not even considering what's happening to the banking business in Charlotte.

WSOC holds the TV pole position in Charlotte, but WBTV is closing the gap. Raycom completed its acquisition of WBTV from Lincoln Financial in April, and the change has been good for the station. “WBTV wasn't run by a professional broadcasting company before,” says Charlotte Observer media writer Mark Washburn. “Television was never the main thing the parent did.”

Raycom's influence is evident at WBTV; it switched on local high-definition this fall, and Washburn says the CBS affiliate's sweeps promotions have never been better.

Still, it's WSOC's title to lose. Cox's ABC affiliate won morning and evening news races in May, took total day household ratings, and was runner-up to WBTV in late news. It's been a smooth homecoming for VP/General Manager Joe Pomilla, who worked at WSOC from 1991 to 1999 and returned last year when Lee Armstrong retired.

Pomilla says there's a lot to like about Charlotte: “It's the perfect area between the Northeast and Southeast. The cost of living is great, and there's a talented labor force.”

Charlotte has grown to DMA No. 24, up from 28th in 2004, and the growth isn't over yet. Arrivals from the Northeast and Florida are drawn to the favorable year-round climate, and the banking monoliths, including Wachovia and Bank of America, draw financial talent from all over the world.

The unofficial home of NASCAR, Charlotte had an exceptional political season, as well-funded senate, gubernatorial and, of course, presidential races went down to the wire. (North Carolina is a blue state for the first time in three decades.)

Yet trouble looms. Battered Wachovia is in the process of being taken over by Wells Fargo, and the stations' newsrooms are tenaciously (and nervously) following the acquisition. Scores of banking jobs will be lost.

Stations are ramping up their offerings to sate the growing viewership. Belo's NBC affiliate WCNC unveiled new branding to coincide with the Olympics, switching from NBC 6 (its cable position) to Carolina's News Channel 36. The station is also playing up its role as market advocate, with crime-prevention tips and investigative pieces exposing wasteful municipal spending. WCNC aims to capitalize on the Olympic sampling. “Hopefully we're going to keep them and keep building audience,” says Creative Services Director Luanne Stuart.

WBTV added Saturday morning news this fall, meaning that each of the Big Three now does local news in that time period. “It has met and started to exceed early expectations,” says General Sales Manager Jess Sessoms. “People have found it quickly.”

Fox outlet WCCB, owned by Bahakel Communications, plays up its local roots with morning show Fox News Rising and investigative “Defend Charlotte” segments focused on retaining quality of life amidst the growth. WCCB marches to its own beat: “They just don't do things the way everyone else does,” says the Observer's Washburn, mentioning exceedingly offbeat promotions. “They're very Fox-y.” (WCCB did not return calls.)

But as much as the market is changing, some mainstays still prove popular. Viewers still turn to Cox independent WAXN for double runs of The Andy Griffith Show at 7 p.m. “It's kind of a staple,” Pomilla says. “It does very well here.”

Next: Las Vegas, NV

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