Cable television appears to have come full circle in the digital age. Independent stations that aren't affiliated with any sort of network carry reruns of popular shows and other special programs, sort of how Ted Turner did in the late 1970s before his small Atlanta station WTCG evolved into TBS, CNN and several other channels.
Veteran TV executive Ken Lucas is applying the same concept to Tampa's WMOR, which can be picked up over the air on Channel 32 but is widely available on local cable systems in normal and high-definition formats. Instead of new programs, WMOR largely carries reruns of recently popular shows in an effort to attract the 18-to-49 age range.
Evidently, it's working: WMOR now touts itself as the nation's leading independent station between the hours of 4-8 p.m. (based on Nielsen ratings from last November), during which it shows past episodes of “My Name is Earl,” “Family Guy” and “The Office.” This fall, it added “How I Met Your Mother” to the mix, along with airing “House” and “Ugly Betty” as part of its weekend lineup.
“We've been very, very successful in taking this television station and elevating it over the last three years,” says Lucas, who has been with WMOR since 1996 and now serves as president and general manager. He previously spent time as sales manager at two local affiliated stations, WTSP Channel 10 (CBS) and WTVT Channel 13 (Fox).
In a market with seven commercial TV stations, Lucas can currently claim higher ratings than two other non-network competitors, WTOG (CW) and WTTA (MyTV). Prime-time reruns such as “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” late-night fare like “House of Payne” and afternoon shows “Cheaters” and “Jerry Springer” draw more viewers than programs on the other channels in their respective time slots, he says.
Those higher ratings mean better asking rates on advertising, which pays for programming, which can get rather expensive depending on a show's popularity. Lucas won't disclose any financial data, but published reports state that more coveted reruns command payments in the high six-figure range on cable “superstations” like TBS and WGN.
For independent stations, those prices are negotiable but tend to run higher in larger markets, Lucas says. The Tampa TV market, ranked 14th in the country, also encompasses St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Sarasota, Bradenton and Lakeland.
Higher costs for network-made reruns, especially shows that still produce new episodes, aren't curbing WMOR from its mission. Lucas says the station is set to carry reruns of “30 Rock” and “The Big Bang Theory” starting next fall, has renewed its contract for “Family Guy” and most recently took “South Park” from another local channel.
“This sets us up well looking at future programming in the local marketplace,” he says. “We're in the off-network station comedy business.”
But WMOR isn't strictly limited to laughable programs geared toward younger demographics. Last year it added two digital-tier channels — ThisTV, which carries MGM movies and classic TV shows like “Mister Ed,” and EstrellaTV, which offers Spanish-language news and entertainment. WMOR subscribes to those and they run on varying channels on cable.
Those two channels complement the programming available on TV32 and open the way for cross-promotion between all three, says Dave Lawrence, creative services director at WMOR. “It's about moving audiences from one channel to the other, but keeping it in the family,” he says.
Since the mandatory conversion from analog to digital TV, local stations have begun offering their own alternate channels on digital receivers and cable outlets. For example, Tampa NBC affiliate WFLA has the Retro Television Network, which offers classic TV and movies.
WMOR is owned by New York-based Hearst Television Inc., which Lucas says provides strong support to the station's programming and marketing efforts. Nearly 40 people work at the station at 7201 E. Hillsborough Ave., mostly in advertising and marketing capacities since it doesn't produce any of its own programs.
“You have to stick to what you're good at doing, and you have to determine whether there is a void in what you're providing,” Lucas says. He adds that WMOR will produce public service announcements for local charitable groups, and put together the video presentation for Tampa's bid earlier this year for the 2015 Super Bowl.
Lucas says current plans for WMOR programming have been in the works for several years, but even though they are reaching their peak now he believes the station will be even more aggressive in garnering ratings and ad revenue over the next two years.
“I truly believe this is our time,” he says. “We out-deliver the market by a good margin. We expect to continue to do that in the near future.”