Indies, WB Are a Match Made in Heaven

Jan 16, 2005  •  Post A Comment

When The WB launched in January 1995, it gave unaffiliated TV stations across the country an alternative to the do-it-yourself option of independently programming movies, sports and other homespun fare 24 hours a day.

With growing competition from new cable channels, independent TV stations were finding good content more difficult to procure and increasingly expensive. A network affiliation also offered the promise of a brand, shared promotion and advertising. For many independents, The WB offered a better way to compete.

The WB breathed life into dozens of waning independent stations in medium-size markets. Acme Communications, which owns eight of The WB stations, came into existence in 1997 to leverage the WB opportunity. Some of the stations Acme bought were in bankruptcy, while others had weak signals.

“Many of these stations were dwindling, and very few had ratings at all,” said Doug Gealy, president and chief operating officer for Acme.

Acme, founded by Jamie Kellner, who was chairman of The WB as well, also built WB affiliates from the ground up in Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, N.M., and Knoxville, Tenn.

But signing up affiliates was no slam-dunk. Some station owners were nervous about ceding programming decisions to a start-up entity. Others had to choose between The WB and another new broadcast network, UPN, which then-owners Chris-Craft Industries and Paramount were racing to launch at the same time.

KWCV-TV, WB33/Cable 5 in Wichita, Kan., which launched in 1999, four years after The WB, faced such a decision. General Manager Eric Lassberg said the station opted to affiliate with The WB because it had better demos than UPN, a stronger brand and more successful family-friendly shows at the time. Still, it was a difficult move to make.

“It’s a huge risk,” Mr. Lassberg said. “You give up all this programming inventory [to go] with a total unknown.” Six years later, it’s paid off and was a good decision, he said.

At a Crossroads

The WB’s Jacksonville, Fla., Chicago and Denver affiliates are three local broadcasters that opted for the network path over the indie route. Jacksonville’s WJWB-TV faced a crossroads in 1997 when it had to choose between aligning with The WB or going it alone after losing its ABC affiliation.

The WB was new to the Jacksonville market, and luring viewers was tough, said Michael Liff, president and general manager for the Media General-owned station. Mr. Liff’s plan was to plaster The WB identity all over the station.

“We were more focused on the brand, WB 17, and hammered away at that sign-on to sign-off,” he said. That’s a strategy he learned during several stints at Fox, which taught its stations to “Fox-ify” themselves all day long. Mr. Liff did the same with the new network, even down to employees wearing frog costumes at local marketing and community events.

It worked. WJWB received the Froggie Award from the network last May as the top-rated WB affiliate by market in prime-time programming for adults 18 to 49, he said.

Jim Zerwekh, now the general manager for Tribune’s WB affiliate in Denver, KWGN-TV, was on the front end of the network’s birth while at Chicago’s Tribune-owned WB affiliate WGN-TV in 1995. “As a pure independent we were really having to hunt for original programming and exclusives, and if it wasn’t sports we didn’t have it,” he said.

Now KWGN’s prime time is competitive with Denver’s Fox-owned KDVR-TV. Both stations scored a 3.6/8 in household ratings in November 2004, Mr. Zerwekh said. KWGN is still behind Denver’s ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates but outperforms those networks during certain time periods, he said.

“There’s not a lot of programming we could be doing on our own that could be delivering the same number we are getting with WB programming,” he said.

Tribune’s WB station in Dallas, KDAF-TV, came into the fold in a different fashion. KDAF had been a Fox-owned station and became a WB affiliate during the pivotal New World affiliation switch in 1995. As such, the station went from seven nights a week of Fox programming to one night a week of The WB programming in January of that year. “I had to convince the employees that there was life after Fox,” said Joe Young, VP and general manager.

Today, KDAF carries six nights a week of WB programming and the station is worth nearly four times what it went for in 1995, he said. That’s no small feat in Dallas, which counts network-owned stations for the NBC, CBS and Fox affiliates and a strong Belo-owned ABC station.

KDAF carved out its role and landed powerhouse syndicated shows, such as “The Simpsons” and “Home Improvement,” to lead into its WB prime time in 1995. “I believe it’s stations that make networks and not networks that make stations,” Mr. Young said.