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Digital Affils Working for UPN

Apr 4, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Gray Television’s new digital UPN affiliate, launched last week in Tallahassee, Fla., was the result of a resourceful pact with UPN parent CBS, the company’s fourth such collaboration with CBS since last fall.

It was also the 15th digital UPN affiliate to be launched in the past two years.

In a short time these unique arrangements are proving themselves a relatively efficient opportunity for local broadcasters to develop revenue from their digital spectrum. The arrangements also appear to be efficient ways for 10-year-old UPN to continue to expand its distribution in a competitive media marketplace.

In addition to the Tallahassee pact, Gray Television since last September has launched three other UPN affiliates carved out of the digital spectrums of three Gray-owned CBS affiliates in the Southeast. All three digital-only UPN stations were cash flow-positive by the end of year, Gray executives said.

“You hate to get too far out on a limb, but so far things are going better than expected,” said Robert Prather Jr., president and chief operating officer of Gray Television.

The digital duopoly in Tallahassee was launched last Friday by building UPN affiliate WCTV-DT out of the spectrum of WCTV, Gray’s powerful CBS affiliate in the Florida capital. Gray’s WKYT-TV in Lexington, Ky., WVLT-TV in Knoxville, Tenn., and WRDW-TV in Augusta, Ga., had paved the way for the group.

With the Tallahassee station, UPN has gained 15 digital-only affiliates in the past two years, said Sandra Pastoor, senior VP of affiliate relations for the Viacom-owned network. Twelve were launched with CBS-affiliated stations, two with ABC affiliates and one with an NBC affiliate.

Peter Schruth, the CBS/UPN president of affiliate relations, said the spectrum allotted to analog affiliates should be able to accommodate two high-definition signals “99 percent of the time.” He said that the rare exceptions-“bandwidth hogs” such as the Super Bowl and NCAA Basketball Final Four broadcasts-might result in some loss of sharpness.

The digital-only affiliates account for about 4 percent of UPN’s coverage of the United States, which stood at 98.3 percent at the beginning of the 2004-2005 season, up from 97.9 percent the year before.

“There are many more in the works,” Ms. Pastoor said. She did not identify the markets, but said, “In most of these markets, more than one station is vying” for the UPN affiliation.

CBS-UPN combos might appear to make the most sense-and not just because CBS and UPN are Viacom siblings. Many CBS affiliates have yet to tie up their digital spectrum because CBS has not identified a network-affiliate digital partnership as NBC has with its NBC Weather Plus.

“But that’s not to say it’s an exclusive club,” Ms. Pastoor said, “We prefer to work with the powerhouse in the market.”

In Tallahassee, which is home to Florida State University and Florida A&M, that happens to be WCTV, which averaged a 55 share sign-on to sign-off in November 2004, said Chris Mossman, the CBS affiliate’s general sales manager.

The closest competitors were WTWC-TV, which is owned and operated by Sinclair Broadcast Group, and WTXL-TV, which has an outsourcing agreement with Sinclair. The ABC and NBC affiliates, respectively, averaged 16 shares each.

Pegasus Communications-owned WTLH-TV is the market’s Fox affiliate. The decision by Pegasus’ WFXU-TV (now WTLF-DT) to switch affiliation from UPN to The WB put the UPN affiliation up for grabs in Tallahassee. WTLF-DT will carry The WB 100+ signal, making it the fifth over-the-air station to carry the signal originally designed to be offered to cable operators in markets where there was no WB affiliate.

“Advertiser reaction so far has been very strong,” said WCVT’s Mr. Mossman, who described sales as “ahead of plan for the second quarter.”

With continued carriage arranged on the market’s premier cable systems, Comcast and CNS, penetration will remain the same as it was before the affiliation switch, said Mr. Mossman. But he added that the Gray station is making a “strong investment in programming.”

The CBS affiliate will repurpose its syndicated fare “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “Frasier” on the UPN lineup. The UPN station’s schedule also calls for a 6-8 p.m. weekday comedy block consisting of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “The Jamie Foxx Show,” “Martin” and “Living Single” and a Sunday night comedy classic lineup that includes “I Love Lucy,” “Sanford and Son” and “Good Times.”

The duopoly will ensure more flexibility in scheduling such programming as the Jefferson Pilot-syndicated SEC football package. In general, Gray’s digital UPN affiliates can be expected to capitalize on sports packages and specials.

In Augusta in January, WRDW-TV simply moved its CBS lineup wholesale to UPN affiliate WRDW-DT to allow for 18 straight hours of coverage of a nearby train crash.

“This is a great opportunity to learn how to use the digital spectrum in a way that’s positive for the stations and the markets,” Mr. Prather said.

His group places a premium on news on its major-network affiliates and on profits.

Mr. Prather said Gray is negotiating in other markets for digital UPN affiliation agreements.

“These stations have the potential to have similar profit margins to our other stations,” the Gray executive said.