I’ve mentioned the sad state of the U.S. broadcasting industry these days, with big companies eating up smaller ones like never before. There are too few independently-owned stations left — run by business people, some better meaning than others — who actually live in the market they are supposed to serve on the public airwaves. Decisions were made in the building. The buck stopped there. (Last February, I wrote about the state of the media and especially journalism, bringing up President Harry Truman.) Now, it’s mostly shareholders, money and politics that rule the roost.
Speaking of politics, government limits have been loosened or eliminated. For example, it used to be a group could not own more than five TV stations. Now, some own well over 100, having their say — often too much — in dozens of cities. Since going digital, a single station can have five subchannels and some of that spectrum was recently auctioned off in an event held by the feds themselves! Conglomerates say they can do more, but the reality is fewer people are working for them than the earlier owners and they will do whatever they can to save a dime. (To too many, the goal of storm coverage means being first and then promoting the hell out of it.)
That brings me to our former ABC competition in the Tri-Cities. For 13 months, I was digital manager at the #1 station, WCYB, and it was probably the best job I ever had. I participated in daily department head meetings, learned from great news directors and taught new reporters. It was part of the five-city Bonten Media Group that was bought by Sinclair after I suddenly and unexpectedly moved back to Philadelphia.
No, WKPT-ABC19 was far from the best but they returned to having a local newscast for their last several years, at least on weekdays. They deserved credit for that. They’re also locally owned, which is so rare these days. That means they had no sister-TV stations to help, no opportunity to benefit from economy of scale, they were the only one of the big three network affiliates on UHF, and it all hurt. But they continued until their partner since the 1960s, ABC, pulled the rug from under them and switched to a subchannel of the conglomerate Media General-owned (now swallowed up by Nexstar) CBS affiliate. So no more newscasts there, and the Tri-Cities have had just two instead of three local sources of TV news for the past year and a half. The people deserve choices and this limits competition in a pretty poor, rural, conservative region.
The reason I’m writing now is I happened to find this 6pm, next-to-last newscast of their main anchor retiring on Thanksgiving, 2015. It happened about two months before the surprise and everyone still doing news lost their jobs. The 11pm newscast segment was too long to email. I didn’t know about Dropbox in those days. You’ve probably never seen anything like this sendoff!
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This was the press release from Monday, Jan. 4, 2016:
ABC Moves Its Affiliation in Tri-Cities TN/VA TV Market
George DeVault, President of Holston Valley Broadcasting, announced today that the ABC Television Network affiliation for the Tri-Cities market is being moved from WKPT-TV.1 in Kingsport to WJHL.2 in Johnson City. The change becomes effective February 1.
According to DeVault, “ABC presented to us a proposal that would have had us paying the network at least 15 million dollars over the next 5 years. Although we ultimately agreed to meet the network’s terms, ABC told us a few days ago that it had decided to explore other options in the market. WKPT-TV had been negotiating in good faith with ABC since October of last year,” DeVault said.
“A large source of revenue for network-affiliated TV stations has become fees paid by cable and satellite carriers in return for consent for them to carry the local affiliate’s signal,” DeVault explained. “A large portion of those fees ultimately goes to the network, however. If the cable or satellite carrier refuses to meet the affiliate’s fees demand, the affiliate can pull its signal from the system.”
“The big systems operate in all or a great many TV markets. We operate in one,” DeVault said.
“Media General, which owns WJHL, operates in almost 50 markets and owns or effectively controls more than 70 stations. If it threatens to pull its network affiliate signals in every market where both it and the cable or satellite carrier operate, it has immensely more bargaining power than one independently-owned, family-owned station like WKPT-TV operating only in market number 97. That is why small operators like us are disappearing or being bought up by big group owners, and that is why networks like ABC prefer to be affiliated with the powerful group owners,” DeVault said.
WKPT-TV will become an independent TV station, not affiliated with a major network, effective February 1. “To stay in the TV business will be a tough financial challenge,” DeVault said. “Many among our present staff will lose their jobs. Most notably we will be going out of the local TV News business.”
“It all boils down to power and money,” DeVault concluded. “Our friends at WJHL did not precipitate this. It was all negotiated at the corporate level by ABC, of which we have been a loyal affiliate for over 46 years, and Media General’s corporate headquarters. The networks and their affiliates used to be loyal partners. We have been loyal to ABC to the end.”