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Oppenheim: WCAX Is Sold

In the world of local television, WCAX has been a rarity. It was the last independently owned and operated CBS station – and one of the few mom and pop shops left in the country.

Back in 1954, the Martin family bought Channel 3 and held onto it. But now, pending approval by the FCC, the station will be owned by Gray Television, a holding company with more than 100 stations, mostly in medium-sized markets. In fact, The Burlington-Plattsburgh TV media market is ranked 97 out of 210 in the U.S.

So, we’re medium to small, but the companies that own our commercial TV outlets are anything but. Gray Television, the purchaser of WCAX, owns more than 100 stations. Hearst Television owns Channel 5, one of its more than 30 TV properties. And Nexstar, which owns Channels 22 and 44, just merged to become the second largest TV-station company in the nation.

The upside for Channel 3 is economic. Shows like Dr. Phil are syndicated and expensive. A big station group can use leverage to buy programming from production companies or buy news content from distributors like CNN. WCAX, as a sole operator, hasn’t had that muscle, but now, as part of a larger entity, it will be able to cut better deals.

Of course, the downside is uncertainty. Channel 3 is the market leader in news. It’s been unusual in its approach to longer-form pieces and emphasis on videography. Vermonters have become attached to the experience and depth of the on-air staff. Some change is inevitable, but Gray Television execs have been upbeat, reassuring that the station will improve under its new ownership.

To some extent, the company deserves the benefit of the doubt. Gray is an established player in the business, known for its stations in state capitols and college towns. I used to watch a Gray station – WNDU in South Bend, Indiana – and it was pretty solid.

But there is cause, at least in the short term, for some mourning. WCAX, for all its years, was a standout in a business known for consolidation. Somehow, it resisted being taken over, a unique example of local ownership.

Now, like so many things in our shifting media landscape, that era is regrettably gone.

Keith Oppenheim, Associate Professor in Broadcast Media Production at Champlain College, has been with the college since 2014. Prior to that, he coordinated the broadcasting program at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan (near Grand Rapids). Keith was a correspondent for CNN for 11 years and worked as a television news reporter in Providence, Scranton, Sacramento and Detroit. He produces documentaries, and his latest project, Noyana - Singing at the end of life, tells the story of a Vermont choir that sings to hospice patients.
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