For nearly five years, El Paso’s oldest TV station, KDBC Channel 4, has broadcast its news programs from the corner of a studio inside a competitor, KTSM Channel 9, with little more than a desk, a chair and a news anchor.
But the CBS affiliate will soon move into a renovated Westside office building with KFOX Channel 14, a Fox affiliate, where KDBC will once again have a studio, newsroom and sales force of its own.
Baltimore-based Sinclair Broadcast Group is investing heavily in the El Paso market where it recently acquired KDBC and KFOX.
Purchase prices for the stations have not been disclosed.
“It’s a nice spin for El Paso because Sinclair, this huge broadcast company, has decided that El Paso is big enough and is healthy enough to come in here and invest,” said Kevin Hayes, general manager of KFOX, who will also run KDBC.
Sinclair has plans to hire 40 people in El Paso. Most of the openings are for KDBC, which now has a staff of two – an engineer and administrative assistant.
Sinclair has also invested $11 million to turn the former Currey Adkins building at 200 S. Alto Mesa into a high-tech home for KDBC as well as KFOX, which has been located near the intersection of North Mesa Street and Shadow Mountain Drive on the Westside for almost 20 years.
According to Hayes, the cameras will roll at the new location by the end of next month.
“For the first time in years, CBS is going to have their own set, their own control room, their own reporters, their own team,” Hayes said.
In addition, Sinclair is buying its two El Paso stations new live trucks and updating the stations’ graphics, including a new logo for KDBC. Hayes says KDBC on-air talent like longtime weathercaster Robert Bettes remain under contract with KTSM.
Hayes said Sinclair’s investment in El Paso, and the revival of KDBC, marks a major shift in the media landscape. It is also a vote of confidence by one the country’s biggest owners of local television stations in the El Paso broadcast market.
“Pretty much what you are seeing there (in El Paso) is happening in a lot of TV media markets across the state and all over the country,” said Oscar Rodriguez, president of the Texas Association of Broadcasters.
The broadcast industry has been consolidating for years and Sinclair has been on a buying spree, completing billions in station deals across the country over the past three years, according to New York Times reporting.
The company’s website says it owns, operates or runs sales for 163 stations in 79 markets, reaching more than 38 percent of television households in the United States. The company (Nasdaq: SBGI) went public in 1995.
Despite threats from new media like news websites and mobile apps, Rodriguez said the broadcast industry is doing well.
“Local TV broadcasters are competing successfully, and the key to that success is their local presence. They develop programming and relationships that are unique to those communities,” Rodriguez said.
KFOX and KDBC will share a building but have separate studios, separate sales reps and separate newsrooms. A director of sales will oversee both sales staffs and a news director both newsrooms, according to Hayes.
“We don’t want KDBC to be a cut and paste version of KFOX. We are not going to have the same lineups,” Hayes said.
Having one company operate competing TV stations in the same market is not an unusual arrangement these days and has become more common nationwide, Rodriguez said. Companies are able to reduce their overhead by sharing costs.
But it can be an awkward arrangement, admits Hayes, who is essentially in charge of both KFOX and rebuilding its long-time competitor KDBC.
“We don’t want to grow CBS by cannibalizing our Fox audience. We want to grow CBS by improving the product and getting more and more people to sample CBS, people who have been away for a while,” he said.
Kevin Lovell, general manager of ABC affiliate KVIA Channel 7, said he isn’t worried about the investment his competitors are making. Rather, having more reporters on the ground, he said, is good for the city.
“I’m more worried on the sales front than the news front,” Lovell said. “In news, they are very competitive and have a great product. With news you just have to go out there and get it, but with sales the pie is only so big. Perhaps it will be divided a little bit more.”
The story of how KDBC ended up in a corner of a competitor’s studio with two employees is a convoluted one involving a number of acquisitions.
The station struggled economically for years. It had at least 10 general managers over two decades and one year of profitability, El Paso Inc. reported previously.
In 2008, KDBC’s owner, Pappas Telecasting, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Titan Broadcasting Management took over the station in October 2009.
To cut down on losses stemming from low ratings, Titan entered into a joint-services agreement with ComCorp of El Paso, the parent company of NBC affiliate KTSM. The agreement allowed KTSM to operate KDBC. Since then, the news reports have been nearly the same on each station, which has not gone unnoticed by viewers.
How bad have things gotten for KDBC?
“Bad,” Hayes said. “I mean, when you look at the numbers, it really was primed for a sale; it is a distant fourth place. Just creating a new set and having new people there will be an instant improvement.”
Sinclair purchased KFOX more than a year ago, and will start operating KDBC when the joint services agreement with KTSM runs out in October.
With the purchase of the stations, Sinclair also acquired two broadcast antennas on the top of the Franklin Mountains.
On Friday, Sinclair’s website had 21 jobs posted for El Paso – 62 total for Texas. The jobs in El Paso include everything from a morning news producer and news anchor to a sales manager and weekend producer.
El Paso’s TV market jumped six places in 2011, from the 97th largest market in the country to the 91st. It was the biggest jump in the rankings for the El Paso market in recent memory, and no other TV market in the nation moved up so many places that year.
The spike in the number of households with televisions in the El Paso region in 2011 was largely attributed to the expansion of Fort Bliss and influx of people from Mexico escaping the violence in Juárez.
“When you have a population and community growing like El Paso that usually reflects favorable economic trends, and certainly the larger the population is the greater the opportunity for revenue for any kind of local media operation,” Rodriguez with the broadcasters association said.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.