In the early days of television, technical restrictions made small TV markets on the fringe of major media markets possible, especially in areas such as Appalachia where geography provided its own unique challenges.
However, times have changed since then. First, pay TV came along in the form of cable and satellite to relieve some interference issues. More recently, viewers have been ditching TV’s altogether and watching their favorite shows online through Netflix and Hulu.com. In addition to these factors, population shifts have made consolidation in some areas feasible.
Enter the Wheeling, West Virginia/Steubenville, Ohio market. Ranked 158 nationally by Nielsen Media Research, the Wheeling/Steubenville market has two major TV stations: CBS affiliate WTRF-TV (channel 7) and NBC affiliate WTOV-TV (channel 9). The market also has a lot of overlap with the much larger Pittsburgh market. So much so, that CBS tried buying the channel 9 license in the 1950’s and moving it to Pittsburgh, due to DuMont-owned WDTV being the only commercial VHF station in Pittsburgh during the FCC’s license freeze; the FCC vetoed the idea. (Ironically CBS owns the present-day KDKA-TV today, which originally was WDTV.) With the Penn-Lincoln Parkway having been built shortly after that, Steubenville is only about a half hour drive from Downtown Pittsburgh today. Steubenville even goes as far as to market itself as a suburb of Pittsburgh.
Allegheny County has seen population gains the last few years after the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980’s cut the population in half, but most of the rest of the area continues to see declines. Between that, the penetration of pay TV, and increasing use of watching TV online, it should be time to consider a consolidation.
If the Wheeling-Steubenville market were to be annexed by Pittsburgh, it would give Pittsburgh a total of eleven full-powered TV stations, up from the current nine. It wouldn’t increase Pittsburgh’s market size by much, only moving up two spots ahead of St. Louis, Missouri and Portland, Oregon. Yeah, the Wheeling/Steubenville market is THAT small.
There would also have to be affiliation contracts that would have to be sorted out. The one clear move would be CBS, where they own Pittsburgh’s KDKA-TV. CBS isn’t going to forfeit an O&O station’s affiliation over to a privately-owned affiliate in a major market, especially when KDKA-TV is one of CBS’s strongest stations. Since they also own CW station WPCW, I could see CBS offering WTRF-TV an affiliation with The CW as compensation. CBS then can turn WPCW into an independent focused on Pittsburgh-based programming, such as sports. Heck, CBS likes to bring back heritage call signs, why not chance WPCW’s call sign to WIIC-TV? WIIC-TV is the former callsign of NBC affiliate WPXI, and the callsigns are available. (A currently dark low-powered station in Pittsburgh currently has the WIIC callsign, but FCC rules allow a full-powered station to share a callsign with a low-powered station.) It is a possibility.
NBC might be a little trickier. WPXI has had the affiliation for Pittsburgh since going on the air in 1957, while WTOV-TV’s NBC affiliation only dates to 1980, when it swapped affiliations with WTRF-TV. There is also an issue with ownership. Cox Communications, which has owned WPXI since 1964, also currently owns WTOV-TV, but is in the process of selling WTOV-TV and sister station WJAC-TV in Johnstown, Pennsylvania off to the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which own Pittsburgh’s Fox affiliate WPGH-TV and MyNetwork TV affiliate WPMY. FCC regulations would not permit a triolopy in Pittsburgh and Sinclair would have to sell of either WPGH-TV or WPMY if it went through with acquiring WTOV-TV. In this scenario, I see Sinclair still acquiring WTOV-TV, but moving the Fox affiliation from WPGH-TV to WTOV-TV to give it a VHF number. WPGH-TV would then go independent and be sold off. Sinclair could sell the station to one of the many companies it has local marketing agreements (LMA) it has in other markets and continue to operate WPGH-TV through an LMA. Or, since WPXI already produces a 10 PM newscast for WPGH-TV, Sinclair could sell WPGH-TV outright to Cox. I don’t see WPGH-TV (or any station in Pittsburgh, for that matter) affiliating with a Spanish station such as Telemundo or Univision, due to Pittsburgh having a relatively low Hispanic population.
Long-term, this is something I see happening down the road. Inevitably, it would make more sense. It is something that the FCC and Nielsen Media Research needs to look into.