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Columbus discovers WWAT

For years, Columbus, Ohio, had the distinction of being the nation’s largest TV market with the fewest commercial stations: three affiliated with the networks and a fourth now associated with Fox.

In August 1987, however, a UHF independent known as WWAT proudly signed on the air as the 34th-ranked market’s fifth full-power station.

The bare-bones operation, located in the Columbus suburb of Chillicothe, spent its first year broadcasting a test pattern. Even when it got some high-profile firstrun action hours and kids fare on the air, WWAT’s fortunes didn’t improve much .

Viewing the situation from a safe distance away at NBC affil WCMH in Columbus , general manager Doug Gealy simply chalked up the indie’s viewership problems to poor promotion.

But Gealy now knows there’s more to it. His Outlet Broadcasting-owned station , which has taken over programming, sales and marketing for the indie via a new profit-sharing agreement, recently discovered what WWAT really lacks: watts.

“The station had been running on half-power and they didn’t even know it,” Gealy explains.

The equipment WWAT had used to measure its signal was faulty, leading the station’s former owner — an engineer by trade — to miscalculate its reach.

This news came as a bit of a surprise to WWAT’s new owner, Fant Communications. It quickly expanded WCMH’s mission to “keeping the thing on the air,” Gealy says.

Once the technical problems are ironed out in the next four to six weeks, Gealy will concentrate on consolidating the two stations’ operations. Unlike most mergers, this combination will actually increase the workforce by as many as 30 people.

It will also enable WCMH viewers to find out what’s WWAT. The affil will use its airwaves to cross-promote the little-known station’s programming.

Gealy is eventually hoping to increase WWAT’s kids fare, allowing the affil to expand its sales reach from the 25-54 age group to the 2-24 crowd.

His goal is to swipe away “The Disney Afternoon” from the market’s Fox affil, Sinclair Broadcasting’s WTTE. Disney’s contract with WTTE, which airs its cartoon block in the mornings, is expected to run out in 1997.

The new manager of WWAT will also explore affiliating the station with one of the new studio-backed networks. Although Gealy remains uncommitted, he appears to be leaning toward Paramount over Warner Bros. — a move that could bring “The Disney Afternoon” to WWAT anyway since Par is interested in acquiring the animated block for its weblet.

Gealy will also be in the market for more name brand theatrical titles to complement the action hours on WWAT. And he will be looking to launch the market’s first 10 p.m. newscast. Station to Station’s suggestion for the title: “WWAT’s Happening.”

DO AS I SAY…

When it comes to dealing with affiliates, Fox Broadcasting wields a big stick. The weblet is notorious for taking a hard line with affils — especially those even thinking about forming a secondary affiliation with Paramount’s fifth network.

But that didn’t stop Fox senior VP Preston Padden from roaming the halls of last week’s National Assn. of Broadcasters confab in Las Vegas wooing every CBS affil in sight.

The effort paid off. Fox came out of NAB with at least a dozen new and secondary affils that want National Football Conference games.

Fox’s secondary affiliation agreements will require CBS affils to carry some of Fox’s primetime lineup as well, but they won’t have to preempt CBS fare to do it.

It’s Eye-grabbing business plan shouldn’t fool anyone into thinking that Fox will relax its secondary affiliation stance with its own group of stations.

Industry sources tell Station to Station that Fox recently made it very clear to one group owner that his affiliation would be in danger if he considered such a move.

For its part, CBS seems willing to let affils take the games, but at a price. The web’s affiliate relations prexy Tony Malara told WSBT-TV in South Bend, Ind. , that CBS will offer “60 Minutes” to another station in the market since the games will preempt the high-rated newsmag.

The web is planning to re-evaluate its relationship with the station on a long-term basis.

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