Media Scene

How WCCB prospered after Fox divorce

Kristine Zell, Derek James on “WCCB News Rising,” which was expanded 30 minutes after losing the Fox affiliation.
Kristine Zell, Derek James on “WCCB News Rising,” which was expanded 30 minutes after losing the Fox affiliation.

Three years ago, Charlotte broadcast veteran Jim Babb was at the Fox affiliates meeting in Los Angeles and let network executives know that WCCB (Channel 18) was ready to renew its contract.

WCCB had been a Fox affiliate since the network was hatched in 1986 and had been often honored as one of its best-performing stations.

But something was off. Fox executives kept delaying contract talks with vague excuses.

“We knew something was up,” says Babb, executive vice president of Charlotte-based Bahakel Communications, which owns WCCB and two other TV stations in the Carolinas.

“When we got the call, it wasn’t a total shock.”

That call came on a Monday morning in January 2013 as Babb was walking in from the parking lot.

Fox told him it was buying Charlotte’s WJZY (Channel 46) and intended to move its programming there. It was part of a Fox strategy to own stations in NFL cities where it owned the lucrative broadcast rights.

For WCCB, it meant losing prime-time programming and the potent Fox sports package that included NASCAR , Major League Baseball and the NFL – including weekly Panthers games, by far the No. 1-rated programs in Charlotte.

Few would have expected the station to continue to prosper, but now – entering its third fall premiere season with the lesser-known CW network – WCCB has set itself apart as the little channel that could.

Helping it rebound from the loss were several factors, including good crisis management, the coincidental resurgence of the Charlotte economy, a personality-driven newscast that held its own and a favorable swing in network performance.

Facing a crater

Babb said the WCCB leadership team spent about an hour mourning the loss of the Fox affiliation, then began a series of meetings deciding what course to take.

Before noon that Monday, executives were talking to the CW network about WCCB becoming an affiliate, and a deal was struck that spring.

Options were discussed that included closing the news department. “That was rejected right off the bat,” says Babb.

Instead, the station decided to do more local news, adding a 6 p.m. broadcast on weekends when other stations are often still in sports programming and expanding its morning show.

Losing Fox sports meant a big loss of revenue, but the station picked up UNC Charlotte football games and now has expanded to pick up some N.C. State, Wingate and Appalachian State games.

WCCB retained its four Panthers preseason games and its weekly “Panthers Huddle” show with coach Ron Rivera. Sports programs represent about 35 percent of all TV revenues, Babb says.

CW grew up

Designed as a network to appeal to younger women, the CW, under the direction of its president Mark Pedowitz, began broadcasting shows with wider appeal – such as “Arrow” and “Flash” – the fall WCCB signed up.

At the same time, the Fox network entered a period of decline, with top performers such as “American Idol” and “Glee” having run out of steam and future hits such as “Empire” still in development.

Last season’s newcomers “Jane the Virgin” and “iZombie” did well on the CW, and “My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” which debuted Monday, is one of the critics’ favorites of the year.

Though Fox’s primetime lineup remains more popular among Charlotte viewers than the CW’s, two years after the stations swapped affiliations, the CW’s evening audience was up 50 percent; Fox was down 58 percent.

WCCB did for the CW what it had done for Fox through the years – outperform national averages. In the key ad demographics of adults ages 18 to 49 and women 25 to 54, WCCB was No. 1 in the nation percentage-wise among all CW affiliates in February’s sweeps.

Battle for news

Though WCCB has the smallest TV news staff in town, its signature 10 p.m. newscast performs well.

Once the front-runner in the three-way news race at 10 p.m., it retained two-thirds of its audience when it lost Fox. WAXN (Channel 64) took the lead, and WJZY plunged to a distant third.

Under Fox ownership, WJZY tried an experimental newscast, which didn’t catch on and was abandoned. Its 10 p.m. news is only now gaining significant traction.

Since the fall season debuted in September, WCCB leads the 10 p.m. news race in the popular advertising demo of viewers ages 25-54, capturing 45 percent of that audience, followed by WAXN at 30 percent and WJZY at 25 percent.

While other stations in town tend to be heavy on crime and breaking news, WCCB relies more on enterprise stories, in part because it doesn’t have the reporting staff to match its competitors.

WCCB’s newscast, and its 10:30 magazine show “The Edge,” is built around Morgan Fogarty, the station’s best-known personality.

When Fogarty – who routinely does reporting assignments as well as anchoring – left on maternity leave in the summer, ratings fell nearly a third year-to-year for the newscast; when she returned in September, they rebounded.

“Clearly, Morgan is the lead player,” says Babb. “I don’t think anyone would disagree. She’s certainly our star.”

Tight leadership

While privately held Bahakel does not share financial results, Babb says WCCB has exceeded all forecasts with its bankers since losing Fox. It had no layoffs, and its staff is slightly larger now.

One of the first decisions management made was to assure its sales staff under general sales manager Gaston Bates that commissions would be guaranteed for two years at the level they were under the Fox affiliation to head off a possible exodus of veteran sales talent.

Being nimble was one of the keys of weathering the transition, Babb says. Beverly Poston, daughter of company founder Cy Bahakel, is the president of the firm and maintains a second-floor office a few steps down the corridor from Babb at WCCB’s studios across from Bojangles’ Arena.

“We’re not a conglomerate,” says Babb. “We didn’t have to go far to get the OK for things. We could do deals in the hall.”

Poston points out that losing Fox was the second time WCCB has lost a network affiliation. In 1978, ABC moved its shows to WSOC (Channel 9).

“We’ve been down this road before,” she said. “We definitely weren’t going away.”

Mark Washburn: 704-358-5007, @WashburnChObs