Belo Sees Contrarian Metric in Local TV

In a flip of what's being seen in much of the media marketplace, local TV station owner Belo said Wednesday that its local TV revenues are stronger than national coming out of this recession.

Belo - which owns stations in Seattle, Providence, R.I., and the big markets in Texas, among others - said that it was able to overcome political-ad- fueled comparisons to last year to deliver 1.3 percent growth in the third quarter. Ad revenues increased as the quarter progressed.

A lot of TV station owners are scrambling with the third quarter comparisons and won't get any relief in the fourth quarter, which last year boosted October and November beyond all expectations in the sour economy. Belo took in $11.5 million in political ads in the third quarter of 2002, well above the $3.6 million in political ad revenues this quarter. And since the stations raked in political ads during October and November, it's going to hurt fourth-quarter comparisons for many. Belo isn't any different: Chief Financial Officer Dunia A. Shive said Wednesday afternoon that the station group generated $27.9 million in political revenue in the fourth quarter of 2002, with $21 million coming in October. Shive expects this fourth quarter, with few big races to speak of, to be about $3.9 million in the category.

Excluding political-ad comparisons, Belo's spot TV revenues were up 6.8 percent in the third quarter with September rising 13.1 percent. Local spot was up 15.3 percent while national was up 9 percent. Increases were seen in financial services, insurance and radio/TV while movies, department stores and health/beauty were down.

If you don't count political, October's pacings at Belo's TV stations were up high single digits and November's pacings were up low to middle single digits. Comparisons with political revenues were harsh, down 20 percent in October and down mid-single digits in November.

Jack Sander, president of the Television Group, said Belo had seen "modestly encouraging" signs in ad revenues, with much of the upswing on the local side rather than the national. National advertisers were placing later than local, Sander said. That's crucial for Belo's TV unit, where local advertising represents about 65 percent of its total revenues: It's part of the company's strategy. "We have worked for years on what we call 'controlling our own destiny,'" Sander said.

Sander said Belo has been seeing firmer unit pricing with stable or increasing ratings, which is key in a market where he said advertisers were taking flight to higher quality stations and programming.

"You want to be a firm pricer and sometimes that means holding out and not taking quick, early deals or not taking enough quick money because you believe the demand will be there. That has happened in the back half of the third quarter and is happening in the early half of the fourth quarter," Sander said.

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