BURLINGTON --In the world of Queen City media, the fox just swallowed the mouse. That is, the parent company of Burlington's Fox affiliate, Smith Media LLC of St. Louis, recently purchased the beleaguered ABC-TV affiliate, WVNY Channel 22. Under the terms of the $10.5 million deal with WVNY's previous owner, C-22 License Subsidiary, Smith Media has taken over the sales and administrative functions of Channel 22 while Smith's operating partner, Lambert Broadcasting of Burlington, will now program the station and manage all of its technical operations. Lambert Broadcasting of Burlington is controlled by Michael Lambert of Beverly Hills, California.
The deal, which closed at the end of May, has already received initial approval from the Federal Communications Commission. The two stations will continue to operate out of their respective studios --Fox 44 in Colchester and ABC 22 in South Burlington --though it's likely the two operations will eventually be merged. There's no word yet on whether any new staff will be brought in to run WVNY, or if current WVNY employees will be laid off.
Thus far, the sale of WVNY hasn't resulted in any content or programming changes, either. Ian Guthrie, chief financial officer of Smith Media in St. Louis, says viewers shouldn't notice a difference --at least for the time being.
From the viewers' standpoint, the biggest unanswered question is whether Smith Media will bring local news coverage back to Burlington, which WVNY discontinued in 2003 due to sagging ratings against WCAX-Channel 3 and WPTZ-Channel 5. Guthrie says it's simply too soon to say.
"We're looking at all options with respect to the news," he says. "We need to make sure that if we do it, that we can provide a viable news product for the viewer."
Local news isn't new territory for Smith Media. The company owns six network-affiliated stations across the country, which include operations in Utica, New York; Santa Barbara, California; and Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, Alaska. Interestingly, all three Alaska stations are ABC affiliates and the Utica station is an NBC affiliate.
WFFF has never offered local news in Vermont, though the other five stations do.
These days, it's not unusual for one corporate entity to operate two stations in the same area, even when those stations have different network affiliations. Changes in 2003 to the federal media-ownership laws made it easier to own multiple media properties in a single market. Guthrie says that a potential advertiser wouldn't be required to buy airtime on both stations. But the deal reduces the number of broadcast advertising options in the Burlington area from four to three.