The fallout from the year-ago upheaval in affiliations in the 109th TV market depends on whom you talk to. NBC affil WISE is thrilled with the increase in sports programming it’s gotten from adding Fox on a subchannel, while WFFT, now an independent, says its Rentrak numbers are strong and tracking up. But Nielsen numbers and local ad buyers paint a somewhat different story.
Having failed to reach an affiliation renewal agreement with Nexstar Broadcasting for WFFT Fort Wayne, Ind., Fox a year ago today moved American Idol, Glee and its big-time sports programming to a subchannel of Granite Broadcasting’s WISE.
The upheaval in DMA 109 bolstered Granite’s already strong, if not dominant, position in the market with rights to five of the top six English-language broadcast networks, while leaving WFFT to manage as a small-market independent. It also prompted Nexstar to hit Granite with an antitrust suit that is plodding ahead in a federal court.
Local managers for Nexstar and Granite say they are getting used to the new normal. But they paint a somewhat brighter picture of the switch than the Nielsens and local media buyers do.
At Granite, Jerry Giesler says his one-year-old Fox affiliate is on track and drawing 80%-90% of the viewership it had in Fort Wayne with Nexstar.
“[W]e went through a football season and we never looked back,” he says. “People are going to find you for NASCAR, for football, for baseball, for American Idol.
“They find you for other things. So as you go through cycles of programs that people care about — and Fox has a ton of those — we’re finding that they know where we are.”
Granite’s WISE airs NBC on its main channel. To make room for Fox on the subchannel, Granite bumped the start of its MyNetworkTV lineup to 10:30 p.m.
Through a duopoly arrangement with Malara Broadcast Group, Granite also operates WPTA, which carries ABC on its main channel and CW on a subchannel.
The market is still somewhat volatile, says WFFT GM Bill Ritchhart, but things have “definitely calmed down from when it first happened.”
“We’ve picked up SEC football, ACC basketball. We’re the pre-season home of the Indianapolis Colts. We picked up two Colts-produced football shows. One of them highlights the team; one of them is the coach’s show. So we definitely added in an area where we needed some attention.”
Where WFFT used to air Fox weekday primetime, it is now airing Extra and Insider and two half-hour episodes of The Big Bang Theory leading into its 10 p.m. newscast, now expanded to a full hour. Also, the station has added local news on weekends.
“It’s working out great. We have a lot more avails than we had when we were a Fox affiliate. Rentrak is showing some real positive viewership numbers for both 8 to 9 and 9 to 10,” Ritchhart says.
The local Nielsen tell a different story. They say WFFT’s primetime share (8-11 p.m., M-F, 7-11 weekends) in households fell sharply from 11 in May 2011 to 2 in May 2012.
Its 10 o’clock newscast also took a big hit, the household share dropping from 8 to 4 on weekdays.
“Rentrak is showing something totally different than that,” Ritchhart says. Nexstar doesn’t subscribe to Nielsen, preferring the Rentrak ratings which are based on set-top box data from 13,500 households in the market.
According to Ritchhart, Rentrak shows WFFT going from a primetime (8-10 p.m. weekdays) household rating of 5.36 in May of 2011, when the station had Fox, to 3.35 in May of 2012 as an independent, a 38% drop. That has been moving up lately, to 3.47 for June and tracking at 3.61 through the first 22 days of July.
The GM also bragged that Rentrak shows WFFT with the No. 2 late news for the week of July 23, winning at 10 p.m. and trailing only the 11 p.m. newscast on WANE.
TVNewsCheck was not able to dig out any numbers on how Fox has fared on the WISE subchannel. Local ad buyers would say only that the new affiliate has underperformed the old affiliate.
The chief beneficiary of affiliate switch seems to be WANE, LIN Media’s CBS affiliate, the market news leader. Its May-to-May primetime share of households grew from 17 to 20, according to Nielsen. Its weekday 11 o’clock newscast inched up from 31 to 32.
WANE GM Alan Riebe says his station clearly benefitted from the changeover in the final months of 2011.
“We saw a nice spike in revenue … because a lot of the advertisers were a little unsettled on how the new Fox was going to work out and planted some additional shares of the budgets over here until they could feel more comfortable with what actually was happening.”
Jill Brown, SVP and director of media for The Asher Agency, a major ad agency in the region, says Fox and Nexstar have both suffered from the breakup.
She says that Fox is harder to find on cable and satellite, although sports and primetime and sports programming will continue to be “‘appointment TV.”
Independents like WFFT are a hard sell in any market since everything is programming based, she says. The last book did not present “a great picture” for the station.
Local ad buyers have no complaints about the Granite cluster. “I ask for a fair rate, based on where I feel it should be, and I think for the most part I’m able to achieve that,” saysLisa Liechty, president of Liechty Media.
“I think that WPTA has tightened their rates a bit since [Granite] isn’t getting as much placement on the Fox affiliate as they anticipated.”
According to Eric Johnson, president of Ad Lab, a local ad agency, advertisers who want local news turn first to WANE and then to Granite.
“I would say as far as rates go, [Granite] has been very competitive because they want to sell. They don’t want to sit there with a bunch of avails.”
Besides, he adds, some cable shows have better numbers than broadcast shows so advertisers have other options besides the three local broadcasters.
WFFT took a huge hit from the sports standpoint when it lost the Fox affiliation. “They’ve kind of rebounded,” he says, but not to the level it was at before.
Nexstar didn’t renew its Fox affiliation because it refused to meet Fox’s take-it-or-leave-it demands for hefty programming fees, or reverse comp as it its sometimes called. Granite apparently had no problem with the fees.
In July 2011, after Fox had announced the coming affiliate switch, Nexstar sued Granite in U.S. District Court, alleging that the market power Granite amassed in Fort Wayne violated Indiana and federal antitrust laws.
Nexstar claims that Granite was able to pay a “supra-competitive” price for the Fox affiliation because its aggregation of must-have programming gives it the market power to raise ad rates above competitive levels and accused it of conspiring with Malara to foreclose competition in the Fort Wayne market.
Nexstar also accuses Granite of improperly trying to “poach” key WFFT employees.
Granite counters that Nexstar would have suffered the same alleged injury no matter who succeeded WFFT as the market’s Fox affiliate and that there can’t be any conspiracy because Granite and Malara are partners, not independent economic entities in Ft. Wayne.
The first significant action in the case came last month when Judge Robert L. Miller Jr. denied a motion by Granite to dismiss the case. Granite had essentially argued that even if everything Nexstar said was true it wouldn’t amount to a violation of any law.
Judge Miller ruled that there was enough in the allegations by Nexstar to make the antitrust and conspiracy claims “plausible” without ruling on the merits of the claims. “Nothing more is required at this stage of the proceedings,” he noted.
According to one Granite’s filing, “this case is really about an attempt by Nexstar to discourage other broadcasters in markets where Nexstar has the affiliation with Fox Broadcasting Co. from entering into affiliation agreements with Fox.”
Neither GM would comment on the litigation, nor would group executives of Nexstar and Granite.