By Michele Greppi and Jay Sherman
They might have had to scramble to find programming, and they might have had to beef up their news operation in order to fill holes in the schedule, but a handful of television stations that have lost their network affiliation are proving that with a little ingenuity, an independent station can survive and in some cases even thrive.
Each station’s approach has been slightly different, though three of the four TelevisionWeek has profiled lost their network affiliation at a time when they had a market-leading news operation, which was then beefed up as their network programming disappeared. The fourth station-WCIU-TV in Chicago-opted to take a less traditional route, adding shared sports programming, including local high school games, to its mix of syndicated content.
“There is life after the network and you can be very successful,” said Deb McDermott, president of Young Broadcasting, which owns KRON-TV in San Francisco, a former NBC affiliate that went independent in 2002 and now uses a combination of news and syndicated programming to fill its schedule.
Said Neal Sabin, executive VP of Weigel Broadcasting, which owns Chicago indie station WCIU-TV: “We offer a lot of hope that there is life after the network. I call it the ‘notwork.'”
Here is a look at four stations that are going it alone:
Location: Jacksonville, Fla. (DMA No. 52)
Owner: Post-Newsweek Stations
Sign-on to sign-off ranking as a CBS affiliate: No. 1 in a six-station market
Sign-on to sign-off ranking now: No. 3 in a six-station market
Programming strategy: A leader in news at the time that it lost its CBS affiliation in July 2002, the station moved quickly to capitalize on its news strength by producing eight hours a day of live newscasts Monday-Friday. In addition, the station began bolstering its production of local content, including “Gimme the Mic!,” the station’s localized version of “American Idol.” During prime time, the station airs “The Oprah Winfrey Show” as well as “Dr. Phil.”
Comment: “One thing the station had going for it was its 50-year history of news,” said Larry Blackerby, WJXT’s general manager. “With that news base we were able to do a lot of local programming.”
Location: Chicago (DMA No. 3)
Owner: Weigel Broadcasting
Sign-on to sign-off ranking as a Univision affiliate: No. 7 in a nine-station market
Sign-on to sign-off ranking now: No. 6 in a 12-station market
Programming strategy: After WCIU lost its loose affiliation with Spanish-language Univision in 1995, Weigel brought in Mr. Sabin with a mandate to make it a viable indie station. “We’ve been very aggressive in our buying,” said Mr. Sabin, whose syndicated arsenal includes “The Insider,” “The Bernie Mac Show,” and “The King of Queens.” He hasn’t been shy about sharing sports franchises-including the Cubs, Bulls and Sox with WGN-TV-and programming high school games.
Comment: “We’re No. 2 from 2 to 5 p.m. in 25 to 54 women. We’ve got the dominant court block in the market,” Mr. Sabin said. “Last night ‘King of Queens’ was No. 2 in the key demos at 10 p.m.”
Location: Phoenix (DMA No. 14)
Owner: Belo Television Group
Sign-on to sign-off ranking as an ABC affiliate: No. 2
Sign-on to sign-off ranking now: No. 1 in a six-station market
Programming strategy: Strong syndicated programming and strong news, news, news and more news that gave rise to the station’s moniker News Channel 3.
Comment: Belo bought KTVK in 1999, five years after the former ABC affiliate had been orphaned by ABC’s decision to move its affiliation to Scripps-Howard’s KNXV-TV.
Location: San Francisco (DMA No. 6)
Owner: Young Broadcasting
Sign-on to sign-off ranking as an NBC affiliate: No. 1 in a 10-station market
Sign-on to sign-off ranking now: No. 5 in a 10-station market
Programming strategy: When a bruising battle with NBC ended with the Peacock Network buying fixer-upper KNTV from Granite Broadcasting, KRON turned to a mix of syndicated fare and expanded local news to fill holes once occupied by network content around the clock. “We already had a strong news brand,” Young Broadcasting’s Ms. McDermott said.
Comment: Ms. McDermott said KRON’s prime-time lineup of “Dr. Phil” leading into news, which leads into back-to-back episodes of “Sex and the City,” is “very successful” and usually places third or fourth in the prime-time race. “That’s where you make a lot of money,” she said.