Riding waves: 3 new stations take on NBC29

New York is number one. Charlottesville is number 186– pretty far down the television market list, sitting smack in between Lima, Ohio, and Parkersburg, West Virginia.

Lima has two television stations; Parkersburg one. Even Harrisonburg– which is six spots higher up the Nielsen chart than Charlottesville– has just one network affiliate.

So what's Charlottesville doing with four commercial stations?

Up until this year, WVIR NBC29 was the only game in town. Now, CBS and ABC affiliates are racing to get on the air, and an independent station promises 24 hours of "all Charlottesville, all the time."

Why here? Why now?


The new kids on the block

 The TV rush of '04 started with Gray Television. A publicly held company based in Atlanta, Gray owns 29 stations, including WHSV in Harrisonburg.

"The general counsel in our company knew people who'd owned the [Charlottesville] license for some time, and one thing led to another," says Tracey Jones, Gray regional vice president in Harrisonburg.

One million dollars later– according to published reports– Charlottesville Broadcasting Corporation sold its license to Gray Television, and in March Gray announced it was coming to town with CBS affiliate WCAV Channel 19.

"Charlottesville fits the profile of the market our company likes," says Jones. "The highest percentage of our stations is in college towns and capital cities."

Even as it announced the CBS station, Gray was working to reassign one of its existing licenses to make an ABC station, WVAW, possible, says Jones. It successfully convinced the FCC that its Channel 64 license, previously used to transmit the WHSV signal from Harrisonburg, would make the low-power ABC station work.

For cable viewers, after all, the broadcast power is irrelevant. A signal is a signal.

There's a mad rush in early August to get the signals popping from Carter's Mountain. August 15 is the drop-dead date for WCAV to get on the air– or face the loss of its FCC license.

That's why the boss of the two new network affiliates sounds a little harried the day a reporter calls in early August.

"It's as intense as the walking wounded," says Bill Varecha. "We're in a trailer walking all over each other." All energies are directed toward resolving the technical issues that stand in the way of getting the CBS affiliate up and running.

One initial hurdle: a complaint from NBC29. A consultant for the station tells the Albemarle Planning Commission that WCAV's tower on Carter's Mountain will emit unsafe levels of radiation. Gray Television fires back with its own study showing radio frequencies well below recommended federal levels– and claims that even apple pickers on ladders would be safe.

"Our practice is to defer to the FCC," says Stephen Waller in the county's planning department. The Planning Commission recommends the tower, and the Board of Supervisors approves its construction June 2.

On May 28, the FCC dismisses objections filed by WVIR and on June 28 grants WCAV permission to construct the tower.

After a flurry of technical and engineering work– with three days to spare– WCAV hits the airwaves August 12. The ABC station follows four days later, and NBC29 has itself some competition.

Varecha, 62, Gray's choice to get the two stations up and running, is no stranger to start-up work. The Charlottesville stations are his 9th and 10th, and he's been asked to stay through December 2005. In 1996, in Grand Junction, Colorado (the 190th largest market), he started an NBC affiliate, which he still owns.

Varecha notes that it's rare to set up two network affiliates in a mature market. "We're doing in six months what usually takes two years," he says. "It's a tall order to do with just one station."

And to do it from a trailer– in addition to overseeing the building of towers and antennas– well, Varecha calls that "extraordinary."

The two affiliates will share an advertising and administrative staff but are promising separate sets and separate news teams based in the Frank Ix building, a former textile complex just south of downtown on Monticello Avenue.

One of the first hires is native son Ric Barrick, who'd been working at a Salisbury, Maryland station (market 149). Barrick initially will serve as news director for both stations.

The UVA meteorology grad will also oversee the weather departments for both stations. "I'm comfortable with that," Barrick says. "I have a lot of experience."

He plans to hire a news staff of 10 to 15 people for each station and start with newscasts at 6 and 11pm, Monday through Friday, then add weekends and morning newscasts.

By running at the same time, the two news broadcasts will compete with each other. What's up with that?

"It's a unique thing to do," says Barrick. "Duopolies usually don't have stories on at the same time."

Or separate news teams, for that matter. "We don't have a model to go by," says Barrick. "Essentially, we're reinventing the wheel."

Is that savvy business?

"Nationally, we're seeing constriction in news organizations," says Charlie Tuggle, a broadcast news expert at the University of North Carolina. "Expansion is not something you currently see."

Staffing and equipping news operations is expensive, Tuggle says, so companies are more likely to consolidate. Tuggle points to Fox and CBS affiliates that share the same news staff in the Raleigh area. "We're seeing more of that," he says, "not distinct news organizations coming into a small market."

Barrick, however, thinks the two news broadcasts at the same times will broaden their market share.

"We're going after two different audiences," he says, noting that CBS attracts an older audience while ABC goes for the 18-to-40 crowd.

Barrick's first hire for the WCAV news team: Katie Graham, UVA class of '04 and former WVIR intern. Graham is so excited about her new job that she's been showing up for work at 7am, answering the phone and even taking out the trash.

"We don't have enough cameras to go out and shoot," she says. Instead, she's been crafting 30-, 60- and 90-second news spots in a room crowded with equipment. A WCAV screen goes up in front of the electronics crowded into the three-room trailer.

"It's impossible to do news from here," says Varecha. "We're doing news briefs during the day and in primetime. We're just trying to create a little bit of interest."

The current ETA for the official WCAV news debut is now October, with WVAW following shortly. Pre-fabricated sets for both stations are scheduled to arrive September 24, but station execs say they're aware that construction completion will be the pacing factor.

The two stations plan to hire between 50 and 60 people, but right now, there's no place to put them.

Meanwhile, crowded into the trailer, Mike Gamber is working on a station promo. He's a newcomer to town but has already discovered something: "A lot of people are glad we're here."


All Charlottesville, all the time

 Denny King has an evangelical fervor about the independent station he envisions broadcasting from the ground floor of the Market Street garage on the east end of the Downtown Mall.

"This will become known as Charlottesville's media center," King says. 'We're creating a little bit of Manhattan, a little Rockefeller Center."

Right now, it's an empty 10,000-square-foot space that's been empty since radio station WINA moved to Rose Hill Drive about two years ago. King wants to bring a little bit of WINA back– he wants to simulcast WINA's morning show, "Live with Dick and Jane," from a studio visible from the mall, a la the Today show.

But first, there's that task of raising the $2 million he needs to get WCVL Channel 9 on the air by his self-imposed November launch date.

Since he moved here 13 years ago from Los Angeles, King, a former line producer for television pilots and expert in arranging hotel rooms for movie casts, has felt underserved by media coverage of local news.

While running for the Albemarle County School Board last year, King met Bob Sigman, a former Spelling Entertainment Group executive and now owner of Chuckwagon's Best, an Internet company devoted to selling all things cowboy.

The two thought there should be more local news, and a new media model was born: an independent station with only local content 24 hours a day. A third partner in the venture is Kirk Schroder, an entertainment lawyer in Richmond and former president of the Virginia Board of Education.

Were they blindsided by the two-network punch? King says he knew when he went to the Federal Communications Commission to apply for a license that Gray Television had plans for one new station in Charlottesville.

"It wasn't a deterrent," says King. "It was something outside our vision of 'all Charlottesville, all the time.' If it had been an independent station, I'd be more worried."

King snagged the call letters WCVL from a radio station in Crawfordsville, Indiana, although Gray Television got there first. "I called the owner of Key Broadcasting Company in Lexington, Kentucky," recounts King. "He said he'd just sold them to a lady."

That would be Gray's Tracey Jones. "Our first preference was WCAV," explains Jones, so when those call letters became available, Gray dropped its option to buy WCVL.

King declines to say how much he paid for the rights to WCVL. "I paid the same amount WCAV was going to pay for it," says King.

His new company, Mediacast LLC, has a definite target market in mind: viewers of 50 plus.

"It's the fastest growing segment of the population today, and it controls $50 trillion in income," declares King. "God love TV thinking the only audience is 18 to 34." He adds, "I hope they continue to."

WCVL has the support of Gordon Walker at the Jefferson Area Board for Aging. "The median age of our community is going up with its appeal as a retirement mecca," says Walker. He hopes to help produce an exercise program for older citizens or a show on what's happening in health care.

King has other ideas for shows that play on people's love of seeing themselves or their neighbors on TV:

* Charlottesville's Funniest Home Videos

* the Music Resource Center's Battle of the Bands, and

* City Council and other public meetings.

That last item already appears on the public access channel, but WCVL would edit the meetings, with a public official to explain what's going on. "It's entertaining and enlightening without being boring," King says.

After nearly 11 months of study, due diligence, and talking to 300 local movers and shakers, King calls the venture "a very, very limited" risk. "I've wanted to hear negativity, to hear, 'You guys are crazy,' and I haven't," says King. "That's frightening."

Still, others in the industry are more willing to question his community station concept.

Jones sees no conflict between WCVL and the new CBS and ABC stations, but she points out that the path of the indie can be a lonely one. "You've got to have certified and qualified people to run a station 24 hours a day," she notes.

King says he plans to hire between 25 and 30 people– and to lean heavily on interns and the large local student base.

"I love the idea of community television and the ability to be hyper local," says Jones. "We still aspire to do that."

But rather than a commercial station, Jones suggests another business model: public broadcasting with underwriting. "That way, the people who care about it can support it from a philanthropic stance."

Professor Tuggle at UNC mentions a different local news model: News 14 in North Carolina and Bay News 9 in Tampa, both owned by Time-Warner.

WCVL "certainly doesn't match the model," says Tuggle. "This sounds like public access."

"This is not public access," counters King. "Bob and I have almost 70 years combined experience. I'd rather do one good show than 10 mediocre ones. Because of the production values, there is just no comparison to public access."

Not everyone is convinced.

"Are they going to cover the hard stories or just the features?" asks Brigida Mack, a former WVIR reporter who now works for WSOC in number 28-market Charlotte.

And Mack wonders about putting radio personalities on TV. "I feel like people go to radio for a reason," she says. "If you're suddenly plopped into a visual medium, is it going to be Larry King Live? It's a crapshoot. What's engaging on radio may be totally different on TV."

King disagrees and says a lot of people want to know what Dick Mountjoy and Jane Foy look like. "I think Dick and Jane are a hallmark of our community. They have a loyal and large audience, and they touch on topical issues."

People questioned how radio personality Don Imus would translate on TV, King says. "But he did, and he does that very well."

Naysayers are unlikely to dampen King's enthusiasm for WCVL. "I haven't been this excited since I was 20 and entering the business," he says.


NBC29 fights back?

 For more than 30 years, WVIR has held the local TV monopoly. But a recent lawsuit suggested that it misused that monopoly. When a jury returned last May with a $10 million verdict against the station for airing incorrect information about a Greene County man, it was the largest defamation award in Virginia history. Although later reduced to $1 million, the case highlighted WVIR's unwillingness to apologize.

Despite– or perhaps because of– the lack of competition, the station has long provided little or no media access to its staff, including such luminaries as longtime anchor Dave Cupp and recently departed weather-institution-in-his-own-right, Robert Van Winkle. There's no sign outside the station's sizeable Market Street headquarters indicating what's inside.

Why a siege mentality so long before the siege? For this story, the task of communicating falls not to longtime station manager Harold Wright but to Mike Reilly in Fort Myers, Florida, headquarters of Waterman Broadcasting, which now owns WVIR.

"As a company," says Reilly, "we've never really been concerned too much with what the competition is doing. We're proud of what we do, and we're going to continue to do what we do best: serve our clients and the local community."

In the spring, news director Cupp announced that he was leaving his roles at WVIR this fall to join his wife, who's teaching at Harvard. Later, there was some buzz that Cupp was postponing his departure– he now says December is his target departure– so his 26 years of experience could help stabilize the station as it faces its new competition.

Not true, says Cupp. "We had never set a date, other than to say sometime in the fall. I will be here through December 17."

Cupp declines to discuss the new kids in town, and as for his reason for sticking around, he sounds like soon-to-be retiring NBC anchor Tom Brokaw: the presidential election. "I'd hate to miss that," Cupp notes.

Whatever the hometown team's initial reaction to the upstarts, NBC29 seems to be gearing up to maintain its position as king of the hill.

The station has made a $2 million investment in equipment, including a new graphics package.

"I think they're welcoming the competition," says Brigida Mack, who left WVIR in July. "Reporters and producers felt this is the way it needs to be. Nowhere else you go are you going to be in this situation"– being the only station in town.

Another change has already begun: more live-in-the-field reports and less live-from-the-studio news.

"When I first got here," says Mack, "getting the live truck out was like Christmas in July. Now, you're talking about gas prices, you're going to be at a gas station– not on East Market Street."

Before word of the new stations, "the competition was always the Daily Progress," says Mack. "That's off, because they're two different media."

Tuggle thinks WVIR is going to be able to withstand the TV competition from all sides.

WCAV and WVAW will have to distinguish themselves with viewers, he says. "The two stations are going to have a hard row to hoe to make a dent in WVIR's viewership because it's so established. It depends on whether their owners are willing to take a hit the first couple of years."

"Once the competition gets viable, people are going to check them out," predicts Mack, who believes the area can support the new stations. "While we have people who love us, there are others who say they can't wait for the other stations to come. There will be choices for advertisers who don't like our rates. Choice is always good."


Show me the [ad] money

 Can advertisers targeting Charlottesville's 70,000 viewing households support four television stations? Are there really enough ad dollars?

Ad agency owner Susan Payne thinks so– if the market grows. "If you try to take the clients at 29, no," says the owner of Payne Ross & Associates.

"I believe this market can certainly handle additional competition," says Payne. "One TV station cannot meet all the needs of all clients."

For instance, some smaller businesses may consider paying $200-275 for a 30-second prime time spot at the new CBS station. (NBC29's prime time rates, by contrast, start at $275 and can climb up to $900 for spots around ER, the popular hospital drama.)

Others aren't interested in advertising in Staunton or Waynesboro, which is part of Channel 29's broadcast area, "yet they still have to pay for that circulation," Payne points out.

That's why she thinks even non-network-affiliated "all Charlottesville, all the time" WCVL has a viable niche.

"Our ad rates will be very, very affordable," pledges Denny King.

With the network affiliates tripling overnight, that's a lot of airtime, and WCAV and WVAW are selling not only on demographics but on price.

"I don't think there's any question our intro rates are better now," says Jones. "If I were in Charlottesville, I would want to be an early advertiser because you'll get more bang for the buck."

For now, all that available airtime means that a lot of public service announcements– underlined as "Where Community Counts"– have begun filling some of that space, as have national ads and a bumper crop of ads for Jim Price Chevrolet.

In fact, all the great deals that potentially could have every restaurant in town advertising on TV could produce a backlash, at least initially, says Payne: "It's likely to cut into print and direct mail."


 Ultimately, television ad rates are dictated by ratings, and Jones is confident the new network affiliates are going to bring in the numbers.

For viewers, the competition should mean more and better local news coverage. After all, there are 70,000 stories in the Naked City.

Stay tuned.

Bill Varecha is a pro at start-up television stations. Gray Television hired him to get WCAV and WVAW up and running.



WCAV's first reporter– UVA media studies major Katie Graham– doesn't let the lack of a studio stop her from delivering news spots in the trailer where the station is temporarily housed.



The sets of WCAV and WVAW, which will arrive prefabricated from Kentucky on September 24, may vary from these preliminary sketches.



WVIR NBC 29 anchor Dave Cupp pooh poohs the notion that he's delaying his departure because of the new competing ABC and CBS affiliates.



Denny King and Bob Sigman didn't think Charlottesville provides enough local news. Thus was born WCVL, "all Charlottesville, all the time."



WCVL plans to broadcast WINA's "Live with Dick and Jane" from the space formerly occupied by WINA, and Downtown Mall strollers will be able to watch the show from the mall.



Up and running: ABC and CBS affiliates have hit the airwaves.