A curious arrangement exists in South Alabama and Northwest Florida between the broadcast network affiliates serving what is known as the Mobile-Pensacola (Fort Walton Beach), AL-FL Designated Market Area (DMA).
The Fox (Fox 10 WALA), NBC (WPMI 15) and CBS (WKRG 5) affiliates have local newscasts with a primary focus on southwest Alabama, and the ABC affiliate (WEAR 3) has a newscast focusing on everything in Northwest Florida (from the Okaloosa-Walton county line to the Alabama-Florida line).
In theory, without this arrangement any of the TV affiliates would offer local TV newscasts responsible for covering everything from Destin, Florida, to Lucedale, Mississippi.
That’s a lot of geography with some very distinct news needs. The various half-hour newscasts these stations air throughout the day likely do not reflect or capture these distinct needs.
Apparently somewhere along the way, these four stations split it up. How they arrived at the current divisions is anybody’s guess.
For a year and a half I telecommuted from the beaches of Destin. (It was awesome, but like many good things, ephemeral.) A mile to the east was the Okaloosa-Walton county line. If you lived on the west side of that line, your DMA was the Mobile-Pensacola market. (This was a benefit for me, as I was able to keep up with local Mobile politics 100 miles away from the city on my evening local news.)
On the east side of that county line, your DMA was Panama City.
At first glance, this may seem trivial. But one April afternoon, the National Weather Service warned of a waterspout in the Gulf of Mexico just off the coast near the densely populated coastal county line. These waterspouts can easily become tornadoes that threaten public safety if they make landfall.
Luckily this one did not. However, at the time, a search of the local broadcast TV channels where one might go to seek updates on weather yielded nothing. The waterspout was technically on the Walton County side of the county line, and thus television stations in Panama City were handling coverage and broadcasting to an audience 50 miles away from the potential danger.
The hazard could have easily made landfall on the Okaloosa County side of the line and caught a lot of people flat-footed.
Granted, usually in a situation like this, cable providers will offer channels from both DMAs. DirecTV, our provider at the time, for whatever reason did not.
That was an eye-opening experience. While it was great for me to be far away in Florida but able to keep up with the Mobile City Council, most of the permanent residents in Destin, who couldn’t care less about Mobile politics, are underserved by this arrangement.
What happens during a hurricane? Flood warning? A waterspout that does make landfall? Are people in at-risk situations living on a coastline best served by TV affiliates that have colluded to concoct an arrangement such as this?
The answer is no.
Even beyond public safety concerns, Mobile and Pensacola have very distinct needs. Politically, Pensacola has more in common with Miami than it has with Mobile. The same goes for the municipalities surrounding Pensacola.
So what gives? Why does this forced marriage not have TV stations outright competing with each other for ratings by offering the best possible newscast for the entire market? Why and how were these artificially designated territories separated by a state line originally set up, even though they’re in the same market?
One possibility is to increase the size of the market. According to Nielsen, the Mobile-Pensacola market makes a decent showing, coming in at number 60 overall in the country. If Mobile and Pensacola were not lumped together, that ranking would be much lower.
This ranking is important as it assigns the value of the advertising in that market. In a bigger market, a media outlet could charge more because more people might see a particular TV advertisement. For example, a 30-second TV spot is much more expensive on New York City’s ABC affiliate than it would be on Dothan’s ABC affiliate.
If Mobile splits from Pensacola, what would happen? Perhaps Pensacola and Panama City (ranked 151st) would form a TV market. But then Mobile would certainly drop out of the top 100.
The public’s best interests are not necessarily being served by a Mobile-Pensacola-Fort Walton Beach arrangement. However, the potential increased costs and lower revenue probably would not make this something to which the ownership of these TV stations would agree.
There is also the question of Sinclair’s ownership of NBC affiliate WPMI (Mobile) and ABC affiliate WEAR (Pensacola). Should a single corporation own multiple outlets in a single market? (Sinclair has been targeted by left-wing forces given its alleged right-of-center leanings.)
Mobile is fairly well served right now with the arrangement. Fox 10, WPMI and WKRG carry the weight of the local news coverage in an economic environment where media outlets often struggle.
However, if Birmingham and Huntsville are able to sustain four channels without a bizarrely gerrymandered DMA, why can’t Mobile?