THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Sunday, January 22, 1995 TAG: 9501240471 SECTION: BUSINESS PAGE: D2 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: STORIES BY STAFF WRITER DAVE MAYFIELD LENGTH: Long : 223 lines
It's not quite an open house. But for the past two weeks would-be buyers have been parading through 720 Boush St., Norfolk - better known as WTKR.
Ever since the CBS affiliate's Rhode Island-based parent, Narragansett Television Inc., put Channel 3 on the market in early December, interest in the station has been intense.
Dozens of station groups are reported to have shown interest in the property, which brokers say could fetch $100 million or more. Narragansett has narrowed the list to about a half-dozen, some of which have recently visited the station for a closer look. Sources say the finalists include the CBS network and New York Times Co. A buyer is expected to be announced as early as mid-February.
The new owner is expected to keep the station's CBS alliance. But with more than 80 stations around the country having changed network affiliations in the past year, that's not assured.
Christopher Pike, WTKR's vice president and general manager, conceded that station employees have been anxious since Narragansett announced its intention to sell.
``But,'' he says, ``I think people understand there are a lot of good broadcast companies buying properties now, so the chance of a good broadcaster buying the station is good.''
Almost from the time it bought WTKR five years ago from Knight-Ridder Inc., Narragansett made it quietly known that it intended to sell the station when the market was right. But it hasn't operated like a typical interim owner. Pike says he's gotten the resources he's needed to develop local programming aggressively, his main push.
Since 1989, he's expanded WTKR's news programming from 12 to 22 hours a week, including a 4:30 p.m. newscast launched Jan. 9. He's signed deals to broadcast Norfolk Tides baseball and gave the go-ahead to a well-regarded Saturday late-night local show, ``BuzTV.''
Pike also spearheaded talks with Cox Cable and The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star to launch a 24-hour local cable news channel. ``It never went anywhere,'' he says, ``because we couldn't find a way to make money.''
He'd like to see the new owner continue the push for what he calls ``localism'' and says it would make business sense. ``It's the only thing that will distinguish the station from all the other 500 choices that will eventually be out there.''
Lyle Banks is normally eager to talk to reporters. But WAVY's president and general manager tried talking his way out of talking this time.
``You've gotta see my schedule,'' he says, finally penciling in an hour early last week at WAVY's Portsmouth office.
Here's what's keeping Banks busy:
Buying loads of new syndicated programming and hiring an ad sales force for WVBT, a former local home-shopping station that WAVY is helping manage as a new Warner Brothers network affiliate. WAVY and its parent, LIN Broadcasting Co., have an option to buy WVBT eventually. That's if proposed federal rules that would let a company own two stations in the same market are adopted.
Convincing more cable systems to carry WAVY's local weather channel, launched early last year.
Expanding WAVY's news programming. On Feb. 4, the NBC affiliate will launch the first Saturday morning local TV news show in Hampton Roads.
Getting WAVY onto the Internet, the worldwide computer network. It's working with InfiNet, a sister company of The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, to achieve that.
Finding a use for WAVY's seven low-power TV frequencies in the region. If WAVY doesn't use some of the signals soon, it could have to turn them back to the federal government.
``Isn't that enough?'' Banks says.
All of WAVY's moves stem from one conclusion, he says:
``We know right now that one television station can't satisfy everyone's needs. We're setting ourselves up to serve various strata as effectively as possible.''
By far, most of Banks' time is being spent on WAVY's alliance with WVBT. Since Warner Brothers is supplying only one night of shows initially, its local affiliates like WVBT need to do the lion's share of programming themselves. Within the next few weeks, Banks plans to switch to WVBT some syndicated shows like ``Donahue'' and ``Cheers'' either now aired or shelved by WAVY.
He's also bought for WVBT the local rights to hundreds of movies and a dozen or more syndicated reruns, from ``Happy Days'' to ``Hawaii Five-O.'' And he says WVBT will carry some CNN Headline News feeds and sports programming.
Banks' initial goal for WVBT is modest: a 1 percent share of the local viewing audience. Over the long term, there's no reason why it can't grab a 5 percent share or better, he says.
When you're on top of the market, as WVEC is right now, you don't make any drastic changes.
After topping the November ratings in Hampton Roads, the ABC affiliate just wants to do more of what it's already doing - but better. At least, that's the impression left by Lee R. Salzberger, president and general manager of the Norfolk station.
He's in a fine-tuning mode. One example: WVEC now offers its advertisers access to a ``home page'' on the Internet, the global computer network. And the station plans to greatly expand interactive services, via the Internet, for viewers.
WVEC hasn't escaped controversy on its trek to the top of the local ratings race. Its refusal to carry the gritty cop show ``NYPD Blue'' last season was booed by some viewers as censorship. It's airing the show in the second season - and its ratings, at least, have been decent.
Laurence Hunt is sitting at his desk in the hole-in-the-wall headquarters of WVBT when the phone rings.
``No, ma'am. We're not home shopping anymore. We're going to the Warner Brothers network,'' he says.
Since the 2-year-old Virginia Beach UHF station switched formats nearly two weeks ago, Hunt and his only other full-time employee have heard from hundreds of callers. Most are complaining. ``Some of those shoppers, they're addicted,'' he says.
But WVBT's changeover has been accomplished through a local marketing agreement with NBC affiliate WAVY. The arrangement looks like a can't-miss winner for the station and its investors, led by a California broadcast veteran, Walter F. Ulloa.
Hunt says since the deal was sealed late last month, Ulloa has been ``almost giddy.''
Here's why: WVBT's proceeds from the Warner Brothers-WAVY deal are assured to be higher, Hunt says, at little or no added expense. And eventually, WVBT's owners have the option to sell their station to WAVY and its parent, LIN Broadcasting Co. The price: undisclosed.
The owners of WTVZ, the local Fox Broadcasting affiliate, weren't looking to sell the station. But a buyer came along with a $48 million offer that was too good to refuse.
That's the story told by sources close to the station's previous owners, a Virginia Beach-based investment group that includes local broadcast executives Charles A. McFadden, Aubrey E. Loving Jr. and John A. Trinder.
The story makes sense. In the months leading up to the sale announcement in early December, the owners and managers of the Norfolk station had been talking about launching the market's first 10 p.m. local news show with The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star. The talks were suspended when Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. of Baltimore, the new owner, entered the picture.
Sinclair's plans for WTVZ aren't clear. The company's president, David Smith, has declined to be interviewed.
Broadcast sources say his company considered also trying to buy WTKR, the CBS affiliate in Hampton Roads, but shelved the idea. Through intricate investment and management agreements, Sinclair already controls dual stations in several other markets, including Pittsburgh and Milwaukee. That has increased its buying power in bidding for syndicated shows.
Channels 51, 62, 68
David Hanna would get laughed out of a meeting of local TV station managers if all he had to offer was a show titled ``Karaoke Night Fever.''
But Hanna, president of Hampton-based WPEN, has a lot more up his programming sleeve. And his station is starting to get some attention in local TV circles.
WPEN is technically a string of three low-power stations, two on the Peninsula and one in Chesapeake. Together, their transmission power of a couple of thousand watts each isn't enough to reach all of Hampton Roads.
But by locking up local broadcast rights for everything ranging from Baltimore Orioles games to classic TV series like ``M*A*S*H'' and inventive alternate programming like Bloomberg Business News, he's managed to talk his way onto just about every cable system in the region. His biggest coup so far was cracking Cox Cable's lineup, starting Feb. 1 on Channel 62.
The Cox deal alone will put WPEN into the homes of another 200,000 homes in the region.
Hanna says he's not trying to go head to head with the more powerful local TV stations. With just a tiny slice of viewership, he figures, WPEN will gain enough ad revenues to make money.
Before it's in the black, the 2-year-old station's parent company, Hampton-based Lockwood Bros. crane and rigging company, will have invested more than $1 million.
But it would have cost anybody else more, Hanna says. For its new $250,000 studio under construction in Hampton, it managed to get crane service ``rather inexpensively,'' he says.
For a couple of months in late 1993 and early 1994, the owners and senior managers of Portsmouth's WGNT were high on the wining-and-dining list of some of Hollywood's top TV executives.
The station, purchased by a local investor group for $10 million in 1989 from Christian Broadcasting Network, was in an enviable position. Led by Peninsula ex-newspaper owner Raymond B. Bottom Jr., WGNT aggressively reprogrammed with hot first-run syndicated shows like ``Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.''
The independent station's investment paid off with sharply higher ratings and ad revenues.
All of this was known to the United Paramount and Warner Brothers networks. Each wanted WGNT's affiliation. Each flew their top executives to Hampton Roads to pitch WGNT's owners and managers and then threw open their expense accounts when the local station sent emissaries to Hollywood.
``They did it up right,'' says Ernie Harris, WGNT's senior vice president.
Now Harris and the roughly two dozen investors in in the local station hope United Paramount does it up right because that's the network they cast their fortunes with.
If the new network's premiere last Monday night is any indication, they made a good bet. United Paramount, opening with a new ``Star Trek'' series, topped the network ratings that night in the country's largest markets. While stats for Hampton Roads won't be in for several months, all signs are that WGNT won the night here too.
``We're really excited,'' says W. Howard Jernigan Jr., WGNT's president. ILLUSTRATION: Photos
Christopher Pike, WTKR's vice president and general manager, says
he's gotten the resources he's needed from owner Narragansett
Television Inc. to develop local programming aggressively.
D. KEVIN ELLIOTT/Staff
Laurence Hunt heads WVBT, the former home-shopping station that has
become an affiliate of the new Warner Brothers network.