October 1, 2014
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The Big Switch

A decade ago, Evansville had four network news programs. Now, a change in affiliations and ownership has TV leaders guessing what will happen next
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Mike Riley and Doug Padgett have been management leaders at WEHT Channel 25 for the better part of nearly four decades. Running a business side by side for so long might force some people into neutral corners once the workday ends. Not these two. Padgett and Riley are best friends. They fish and golf together. Their families are close. Padgett and his wife, Kathy, were among the people closest to Riley’s wife, Brenda, during her battle with ovarian cancer. She passed away in 2008.

Now, much doubt surrounds whether the two will remain together — professionally — much longer at the Tri-State’s ABC affiliate.

After 47 years under the wing of Gilmore Broadcasting, WEHT was sold this summer to Nexstar Broadcasting Group. If all goes as expected, Nexstar will merge many of the operations of Channel 25 with those of WTVW Channel 7, which Nexstar currently owns. That means people at both stations could lose jobs. Right now, it means everyone — from the newest hire to the longest-tenured executive — is awaiting word on the future. “Our employees obviously are on a guarded edge, as probably some of 7’s people are,” says Riley, WEHT’s station manager. “Any time you have a combining of two businesses, the angst for all employees runs high.”

Now 63, Riley started at Channel 25 in 1977 as an account executive and became general sales manager in 1986. Since 1992 he has also been station manager. Padgett, 64, came in 1976 as a controller, left in 1982 to become general manager at a Gilmore station in Joplin, Mo., then returned to WEHT in 1987 as general manager. Two years later, he added the title of president/chief operating officer for all of Gilmore’s businesses.

Both men say they are determined to finish 2011 strong. One of Padgett’s primary concerns is “trying to keep people focused on what their jobs are, rather than putting their feet up and thinking ‘Well, is my emotion today that I’m going to be retained, or is my emotion today that I’m not?’ There are people here who are not going to have jobs. There’s just no way around that. I know it is a major, major point of discussion at the corporate level. I have had several conversations with the CEO of Gilmore about how we’re going to handle this, and what can be done and what can’t be done for those people who are not retained.”

The first move in this corporate chess match came in July when Fox broke off its affiliation with WTVW and stations in Fort Wayne, Ind., and Springfield, Mo., all of which were owned by Nexstar. At issue were retransmission fees — money that affiliates such as WTVW receive from local cable operators that retransmit their signal. Fox became the first major network to demand a higher percentage of the fee, and Nexstar balked. As a result, Fox pulled the plug and Channel 7 viewers said goodbye to American Idol, the NFL, the World Series, and Glee. Fox programming in Evansville soon moved to WEVV Channel 44’s secondary station, 44.2. That left Nexstar without a major network affiliation in the Evansville market, and in August, Nexstar announced an agreement to buy WEHT from Gilmore for $18.5 million, ending Gilmore’s ownership of Channel 25 that began in 1964.

Nexstar has plenty of experience buying stations in small markets, and Nexstar executives knew that the FCC would not allow them to own two stations in a relatively small market like Evansville, ranked 103rd nationally. So Nexstar plans to sell the FCC license-related assets of Channel 7 to Mission Broadcasting. Technically, Mission is a separate company, but it is closely related with Nexstar CEO Perry Sook. In fact, Sook helped establish Mission in 1997. Nexstar officials believe the FCC will allow WTVW and WEHT to share operations, and still meet federal guidelines forbidding monopolies. This is nothing new. Mission and Nexstar operate these so-called ‘duopolies’ in more than a dozen other markets. Generally, news and most other operations of the two stations are combined.

“We will have a merging of the two staffs,” says Local 7 vice president and general manager Mike Smith, who is expected to be a key person in the transition that will include a move out of Channel 7’s building on Carpenter Street in Evansville and into Channel 25’s building in Henderson, Ky.  “We will then have basically more resources to provide the community.  We’ve already expanded morning news at Local 7 from three hours to four, added more weekend news, and added three locally produced programs on a weekly basis.”

Where will contractions occur? “I think you’ll see very minimal changes,” Smith says. “We’ll still do separate newscasts.  They (25) will do their 4, 4:30 and 5 p.m. news, they’ll do ABC news at 5:30 p.m., their own news at 6 p.m., and then Local 7 will have news at 6:30 and 9 p.m. Twenty-five will still do the 10 p.m. To accomplish all that reporting, two news departments will become one, “probably the largest news department in the Tri-State,” Smith says.

This marriage leaves Evansville viewers with only two local TV news teams. The other, 14WFIE, has been the longtime overall leader in the local news ratings. “Fortunately, nothing here touches us,” says 14WFIE vice president and general manager Nick Ulmer about the current shakeup. “My greatest concern is that we do not lower the caliber of broadcasting excellence in this market. I know they are my competitors, but our market has a top-notch reputation in terms of news, local programming, and community service. I want that to continue. As long as that reputation is preserved, then everything will be fine.”

This is not the first time TV news has experienced changes in Evansville. For several years, four competitors existed on channels 7, 14, 25, and 44. Channel 44 dropped its news, weather, and sports reporting in July 2001, and that channel has become the benefactor from this summer’s stare-down between Fox and Nexstar. Now that WEVV possesses Fox and CBS programming nightly, is this the time to bring back local news at WEVV? “I have been asked that question a few times,” says Tim Black, general manager of CBS44 and Fox44. “It’s always a possibility, and it’s a discussion that goes on here on a regular basis. But I can’t say we have any big announcement planned.”

In the meantime, Black finds himself as a rarity in local television. He serves as the general manager for a station that claims two of the four largest national networks. Channel 44 was a Fox Broadcasting charter network affiliate in 1987, then switched to CBS in 1995 at the same time Channel 25 moved from CBS to ABC, and Channel 7 moved from ABC to Fox. “I’m not sure I would characterize the current situation by saying Fox fell in our lap, but I can say it was not an ongoing, long process,” Black says. “Picking up a second major national affiliation is an opportunity that doesn’t come along often. From a sports standpoint, we are now the place to go in our market.” Fox programming offers NFL and MLB games and NASCAR races. CBS, too, already had NFL programming, college basketball, and professional golf.

In Henderson, Ky., where WEHT is headquartered, the mood is less chipper. Both Padgett and Riley still lament the passing of company founder Jim Gilmore, who died in a traffic accident on New Year’s Eve 1999. “This station probably would not have been sold if he was alive,” Padgett says.

Gilmore was big on philanthropy. Both Padgett and Riley point with pride to WEHT’s community involvement, including close relationships with the Santa Clothes Club, a telethon dedicated to clothing needy children; the Easter Seals Rehabilitation Center, an organization serving children and adults with disabilities; and Albion Fellows Bacon Center, a domestic violence shelter. After a deadly tornado raced through the Tri-State in November 2005, WEHT and grocery store Buehler’s Buy Low sold weather radios and gave the proceeds to nonprofit organizations helping recovery efforts. Then, station leaders gave free weather radios to educational institutions. The universities, schools, and organizations all received weather radios at no charge. “We have always been a ‘relationship’ station,” Padgett says. “I hope that doesn’t change.”

What will remain the same — no matter the business decisions — will be Riley and Padgett’s friendship, even if they don’t come to work at the same place each day. “If something happens to our relationship after 34, 35 years,” Riley says, “then shame on us.”

Riley, though, has no intention of leaving. “No one has told us we’re not staying,” he says, “so I’m planning to stay. I love working here.”

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