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WBOY's sale may benefit station, viewers

by Franny White

STAFF WRITER

As Columbus, Miss.-based Imes Communications continues to pitch the value of local television station WBOY Channel 12 to potential buyers, area residents may be raising their eyebrows in concern over what may happen to their "hometown station."

The NBC affiliate became the area's first local television station in 1957, providing area residents with a unique view of politics, business, sports and entertainment from their own backyard. Since then, two other stations have moved into the market, CBS affiliate WDTV Channel 5 and FOX affiliate WVFX Channel 46. But many continue to identify with WBOY as the Clarksburg station, as indicated by May's Nielsen television survey, which showed the station to be number one in the ratings.

Earlier this year, Imes Communications declared WBOY and three other television stations in its group for sale. Although there are no definite takers yet, WBOY General Manager Gary Bowden said this week there were some interested parties.

Under a new owner, changes could be around the bend for Clarksburg viewers. Marshall University broadcasting professor Corley Dennison said a new, potentially bigger owner has the right to change programming, staff and even the network affiliation of a station like WBOY.

But Bowden said those changes are unlikely.

"Could there be (changes)? Sure," Bowden said. "But do I know anything that would indicate those changes? No."

Noting WBOY's success in Clarksburg, Bowden said new ownership would be positive.

"If anything, I think it would get even stronger. Anyone who would buy (WBOY) would make improvements and enhancements to what we already have."

Bowden said a new owner would most likely mean better equipment, improved operations and better programs. Bowden said the station would keep its focus on the area's needs.

"We're licensed by the FCC to cover a local area and that's not going to change," Bowden said.

The station's presumed sale comes at an opportune time for WBOY. In the mid-1990s, the Federal Communications Commission mandated that all television stations switch from analog to digital broadcasts in a scaled timeline. WBOY is due to make the switch by the end of May 2002.

But the equipment needed to switch over is rather expensive. Bowden estimates WBOY's digital change will cost a "couple million."

And under a "big, corporate umbrella" (unlike the limited reach of Imes Communications), Bowden predicted the digital switch-over would be easier.

Dennison, a Marshall University broadcasting professor, was concerned, however, about the future of television stations, including WBOY.

He said their was a declining degree of localism, or programming for the "good of the community" in television. With a new, larger television conglomerate taking over a small, family-owned station like WBOY, Dennison said it was possible for broadcasters to lose sight on the needs of the community.

"The idea of addressing community issues has really gone by the wayside," Dennison said. But "if WBOY is No. 1 in Clarksburg, the company that buys them (will) more than likely fine-tune (what WBOY already has.)"

West Virginia University broadcasting professor Bonnie Brown agreed the trend in broadcasting has large companies taking over smaller television operations. That, she said, sometimes results in uniform programming that ignores the unique personalities of different communities.

"We are spoon-fed the same product as everybody else," Brown said. "We watch the same media."

She also noted stations are dependent on their audience, and they normally are "pretty careful to not upset" their viewers.

Brown and her students at the WVU Pearly Isaac Reed School of Journalism have benefited a great deal from WBOY. In 1998, she and several of her students took a field trip partly financed by WBOY to New York City to visit the NBC studios. And many of her students have had internships and even gotten jobs at the station.

She said she hopes the new owner maintains WBOY's interest in the future of broadcasting, including her students.

Both the buyer and the future of Clarksburg's WBOY seems uncertain. But Bowden assured the station's viewers would not be disappointed.

"We'll be the same station we were (with Imes Communications), tomorrow," Bowden said.

WBOY is one of three television stations for sale in West Virginia. The other stations are in the Huntington-Charleston market: NBC affiliate WSAZ Channel 3 and CBS affiliate WOWK Channel 13.

Imes Communications President Frank Imes did not return telephone calls last week.

Staff writer Franny White can be reached at 626-1443.

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