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KNWA axes Nielsen, tempers Fort Smith storm.

IN A TOWN FREQUENTED BY tornadoes, the most important part of the evening news is often the weather forecast.

After changing television station NBC 24/51 to KNWA on Aug. 13 and focusing the NBC affiliate's coverage on northwest Arkansas, Blake Russell added a weather forecast on Aug. 27 specifically for viewers in the Arkansas River Valley.

Fort Smith has a history of violent tornadoes, with the worst on record hitting in 1898, 1927 and 1996.

So Russell, the general manager of KNWA, started providing Fort Smith with a one-minute weather forecast during each of the three evening newscasts and four 30-second weather reports during the morning news. Russell said the Fort Smith weathercast is just another change he had been planning with the shift to KNWA.

"I said all along we are not abandoning Fort Smith," said Russell, who came to the station in January as part of the new regime of Nexstar Broadcasting Inc., which is in the process of buying the station from JDG Television Inc. of Muskogee, Okla.

The Fort Smith weathercast is just another gambit in the area's television competition. As western Arkansas grows, the television market has vaulted from No. 119 in the nation in 1992 to 107th largest this year with 267,030 television-watching households. The area's television news advertising market has more than doubled since 1992 from $16 million to $34 million per year.

And there's been a demographic shift as well. Russell said 51 percent of television viewers in the 11-county dominant market area (DMA) are now in the northwest corner of Arkansas, which is one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country. For the past five decades, Fort Smith has held sway over the DMA, which includes nine counties in Arkansas and two in Oklahoma. But the River Valley city just isn't growing like the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers metropolitan statistical area.

With a population of 80,268, Fort Smith is still the largest city in the 11-county region. The Fort Smith MSA had a population of 207,290 in 2000. That includes Crawford and Sebastian counties in Arkansas and Sequoyah County in Oklahoma. Meanwhile, the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers MSA had 311,121 residents. (McDonald County, Mo., was added to the Fayetteville MSA last year but is not included in that population figure.)

Split Market

Historically, all three western Arkansas television stations have broadcast to a large territory from Mena to the Missouri border and from Muskogee to Russellville.

The cities in that area vary considerably, and the mountains between northwest Arkansas and the River Valley serve as a buffer between the two metropolitan regions.

Besides KNWA, western Arkansas has KFSM, Channel 5, the CBS affiliate, and KHBS/KHOG, Channels 40/29, the ABC affiliate (a two-signal station that is referred to simply as KHOG throughout the rest of this story).

KFSM was founded in 1953 by local media mogul Donald W. Reynolds and sold in 1979 to the New York Times Co., which still owns it.

1953 was also the year cable television came to Fayetteville. Rogers got hooked up three years later Rooftop antennas in the Ozarks could only pick up snowy images from one station in Tulsa, it was the golden age of television, and mountains couldn't separate the hill folk from The Honeymooners and Howdy Doody.

Throughout its history, KFSM has lead the DMA in the quarterly ratings from Nielsen Media Research. For the last decade at least, KHOG, which is owned by Hearst-Argyle Television Inc., has lead the Nielsen ratings in Washington and Benton counties, the two counties that make up the metropolitan area of northwest Arkansas.

Van Comer, general manager of KFSM, said one reason his station has been stronger in the River Valley is because it had an analog tower in Van Buren, and its reception wasn't as good in northwest Arkansas.

In 2002, however, KFSM began leasing a new digital broadcasting tower near Winslow. At 2,500 feet above sea level, the tower beams a digital signal 70 miles in each direction, blasting KFSM outside the DMA to far-flung places like Eureka Springs and McDonald County, Mo.

Although Fort Smith viewers are fuming over the perceived exodus of KNWA, northwest Arkansas has traditionally taken a back seat to Fort Smith coverage from the area stations.

A little more than a decade ago, all three local stations still had most of their newsroom operations in Fort Smith. The River Valley dominated the newscasts while the Arkansas Razorbacks dominated sports coverage. Back then, the weather forecasters gave a five-day forecast with high and low temperatures that pertained only to Fort Smith, not northwest Arkansas, where it's usually slightly cooler and less tornadic.

Until Dallas-based Nexstar began the process of buying KNWA late last year, the station's management bragged that it was the only locally owned television station in northwest Arkansas (Muskogee being only about 60 miles away).

KNWA can provide the separate weather report because it also has two signals. Although the main newsroom is in Fayerteville, the station is licensed to Fort Smith and Rogers because those cities are nearest to its two transmitting towers. The KFTA transmitter on Cartwright Mountain near Fort Smith feeds the broadcast to the KNWA transmitter on Fitzgerald Mountain near Rogers.

With the Aug. 13 announcement, KNWA changed its call letters from KPOM/KFAA to KFTA/KNWA. For marketing purposes it's only using KNWA.

Russell said he has trimmed the newsmom staff by six or seven positions since coming to Arkansas, leaving him with 27. He has also cut his budget item for Nielsen ratings books--which Russell considers "flawed" and "antiquated"--for a savings of as much as $100,000 per year.

Since canceling its newscast in 1992 and resurrecting it in 2000, the local KNWA has lagged behind the other two stations in the Nielsen ratings. KNWA's competition can probably continue to use the weak Nielsen numbers against the NBC affiliate, telling potential advertisers the station is reaching only a smidgen of the market.

Russell said most advertisers buy time during particular programs and aren't concerned with the Nielsen ratings. But KFSM's Comer disagrees.

"Our advertisers deserve something, and the Nielsens are all we have," said KFSM's Comer. "I'm not saying it's perfect, but what else can we give them? When you're in a position where you have good ratings, it's a good idea to use the ratings."

Fragmentation

For the past 40 quarters, KFSM had lead the Nielsen ratings for households in the DMA 37 times at 5 p.m., 35 times at 6 p.m. and 26 times at 10 p.m. KFSM and KHOG were roughly tied 11 times during that decade: twice at 5 p.m., three times for the 6 p.m. book and six times at 10 p.m. KHOG led in the remaining quarters.

Although KFSM shows a traditional dominance in the Nielsen books, KHOG has shown considerable gains during the most important newscast--10 p.m.

Since July 2001, KHOG has won the 10 p.m. Nielsen households rating five times (out of 13) and tied with KFSM in four other quarters.

With urbanization, one theory is that the 10 p.m. newscast becomes more important because people often aren't home in time to watch the 6 p.m. newscast. They're still at work, running errands on the way home or heading out for dinner.

"In the Central Time Zone, people are still available to watch it," Jim Prestwood, president and GM of KHOG, said of the 10 p.m. newscast. "They're not in bed yet. Our numbers are still very competitive at 6 and 10. In some cases higher."
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Title Annotation:Media
Comment:KNWA axes Nielsen, tempers Fort Smith storm.(Media)
Author:Bowden, Bill
Publication:Arkansas Business
Geographic Code:1U7AR
Date:Nov 1, 2004
Words:1266
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