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Cable station a first for The WB

May 14, 2001  •  Post A Comment

After three years of planning, Rochester, N.Y., will gain a new television station this week-the one catch is viewers will only be able to find it on cable.
The WB and Time Warner Cable, which has a cable penetration of about 80 percent in the market, are partners in the new station, WB affiliate WRWB-TV. The station will run on Channel 18 on the cable system.
“The station looks like a broadcast station and is run like a broadcast station,” said Ken Werner, The WB’s executive vice president of network distribution.
WRWB-TV will have a grand opening celebration at its new facility on the Genesee River in downtown Rochester on May 17.
While the WB 100+ Station Group airs programming on cable with broadcast stations as partners in markets above 100, it owns no stations. This is The WB’s first venture into owning a station, albeit one without an antenna or transmitter.
Rochester has only four major TV stations-ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox affiliates-all of which have been there about 20 years, Mr. Werner said. He said there were no other FCC permits allowed for another station.
“We knew that in many instances UHF television stations didn’t have great over-the-air signal strength. So we didn’t think there was a difference between having a UHF station without a very strong signal or just being carried on cable,” he said.
Since Time Warner has a high cable penetration in that market, it seemed like the best place to create a prototype station that would only be on cable. WRWB has a general manager, a promotions budget, a programming budget and a sales staff, minus the expense of having to build a tower or buy a license. WRWB even has a national rep, which is HRP.
Part of Mr. Werner’s plan to improve The WB’s distribution was to take existing affiliates and have them switch to The WB. In the past few years, Mr. Werner said, 12 UPN stations have become WB affiliates. Another way to gain distribution is building a new station, such as WRWB, on cable. Today, The WB has 88 percent coverage of the country.
Previously, Rochester viewers were able to watch WB prime-time and kids programming on cable Channel 26. But cable subscribers had to pay extra to get the channel because it was only on the upper tiers. In December, WRWB debuted on Channel 16 and is now part of basic cable.
Construction on the station began a month earlier. The 7,400-square-foot facility is on the first floor of an old building in the heart of the city’s historic district.
John Newton, senior vice president of programming for Time Warner Cable, calls the station a “true 50-50 partnership.”
“We try to contribute our different expertise,” he said. “The WB obviously is very smart about promotion, and we benefit from that now and at the same time we’re very knowledgeable about Rochester-and that combination we think is a real benefit.”
WRWB bought syndicated programming such as “Will & Grace” and “That ’70s Show” to help build the station’s lineup. The station also acquired sports rights, including some Yankees and Mets games as well as Big East football and basketball.
When word went out that a new station would be built from the ground up, Mr. Werner was flooded with resumes. Tish Robinson, who was the general sales manager at Fox affiliate WUHF-TV, was chosen to be WRWB’s general manager. Ms. Robinson helped hire the station’s 17-person staff.
Time Warner Cable houses all the station’s broadcast facilities, which means satellite feeds for prime-time, syndicated programming and national advertising are received there.
Ms. Robinson said advertisers are already responding to having a new station in town. “A water park is coming into town, and they wanted to be on board with us; they wanted to make sure we were a major part of their media buy,” she said.
WRWB is planning to add a newscast by November 2002. It would have its own anchor team and would build a set either in its current facility or at Time Warner Cable. The newscast would use the resources of Time Warner’s 24-hour cable news channel in the market.
Mr. Newton said Rochester’s 24-hour news channel has 70 employees. Of that staff, about a dozen video journalists shoot and report their own pieces.
On May 17, the town’s hottest party will be at WRWB, with city officials and WB stars such as “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch’s” Soleil Moon Frye and “Gilmore Girls”’ Scott Patterson expected to attend. WB chief Jamie Kellner, who’s now also the head of Turner Broadcasting, is slated to make a cameo.
Mr. Werner said more stations will follow WRWB’s lead in other markets lacking WB distribution.
“We think this is a template for the future in markets where you don’t have a strong signal or there is no other way on,” Mr. Werner said. “There are a number of markets where we can do this. In West Palm Beach we don’t have an affiliate; we’re carried by the UPN affiliate. That might be an alternative that we would explore.”
With the AOL Time Warner merger, such deals may even take less time to put together, since the merged company’s upper management philosophy is to take two assets to create a third asset.
“In terms of doing this for the first time, we thought going inside the company was the best way,” Mr. Werner said. “It seemed a logical, synergistic move where we had a cable company, because at the end of the day, all the benefit will come back to the same company.”