TV viewers need a detailed programming guide and a speedy remote to follow all the changes that took place Tuesday in the Billings and Great Falls television markets.
In the span of three hours, KULR-8 and its sister station KFBB in Great Falls announced they are being sold for the third time since the mid-1980s.
And the Fox affiliate, KHMT-4, and the affiliated ABC station, KSVI-6, dumped the fledgling local news operations they started 18 months ago in Billings, the nation's 170th-largest broadcast media market.
Billings workers laid off Brian Jones, senior vice president for Nexstar Broadcasting Group of Irving, Texas, laid off 26 KSVI and KHMT reporters and anchors in Billings Tuesday morning.
"The company decided to discontinue the news operation here at the station due to the expense of producing quality local news," Jones said. "Unfortunately, the viewer didn't embrace that over the past 18 months."
Fox-4's 9 p.m. newscast, designed to woo viewers with its earlier time slot, scored only a 3 percent share in the latest Nielson Ratings book. A share rating represents the percentage of viewers watching that station out of all the people watching TV that hour.
News on KTVQ-2 led the pack at 10 p.m. with a 28 percent share. KULR-8 news was second with 21 percent.
Two weeks ago, Nexstar signed an agreement to buy Quorum Broadcasting, based in Boston, Jones said. Quorum started the local newscasts on KHMT and KSVI. Jones said the news effort stood between red and black ink on the balance sheet.
"Eliminating news and its associated expenses literally will make the difference of a loss and profit for this station," Jones said.
KHMT signed an operating agreement with KSVI in 1998 allowing the joint news broadcasts. Now that the newscasts are canceled, KSVI will run the ABC World News at 5 p.m. on weeknights. The syndicated comedy "Everybody Loves Raymond" will air at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. KHMT will run Blind Date instead of news at 9 p.m.
None of the news team could be reached for comment. Billings Police Officer Mitch Hart, working off duty, provided security at KHMT/KSVI offices on 24th Street West Tuesday after the layoffs.
NBC station sold In what was surely a television moment, KULR anchor Gus Koernig was interviewing Jones on camera about the end of Fox news in town when Koernig volunteered that his station was being sold, as well.
Bruce Cummings, president and general manager of KULR Corp. and KFBB Corp. of Great Falls, said the twin announcements were a coincidence. He said that, unlike Fox's experience, KULR's local newscasts aren't in jeopardy.
"For them, local news was a liability. For us, local news is our strongest asset," Cummings said. "It drives revenue and connection to community."
KULR, also known as Color 8, employs 62 people. Cummings said none of them should worry.
"It's a great opportunity for our people," he said. However, morning, noon and weekend newscasts at the Great Falls station were eliminated in June to cut costs.
Max Media, of Virginia Beach, Va., will cover much of Montana when it completes the purchase of the Billings and Great Falls stations from Wooster Republican Printing Co. of Ohio.
Cummings said Max Media has been in broadcasting for 25 years and owns five Montana television stations: four ABC affiliates in Bozeman, Butte, Kalispell and Missoula and KTGF, the NBC station in Great Falls.
Cummings said under current Federal Communications Commission rules, Max Media cannot own two TV stations in a town the size of Great Falls. So, the corporation obviously is counting on proposed FCC rules allowing more consolidation to survive opposition in Congress.
Gene Loving, chief executive officer of Max Media, said his company "is actively pursuing a strategy that will meet the commission's ownership rules and enable us to buy KFBB-TV."
Wooster chairman Robert Dix said his company only owned two TV stations, both in Montana, so it made sense to sell. Wooster owns newspapers and radio stations in its home state of Ohio and in Florida, Kentucky and Maryland.
Since Congress approved the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which relaxed rules banning media concentration of the public airwaves, media corporations have exploded in size, buying up hundreds of radio and TV stations.
Both deals must still be approved by the FCC.
TThe KSVI/KHMT staff was noticed on the local news scene.
Billings Police Chief Ron Tussing said at his last job in Nebraska, he had no contact with news reporters affiliated with Fox TV.
"I don't remember dealing with the 'fair and balanced' Fox News before," he said.
When Fox reporters started chasing news stories in Billings, Tussing said he noticed that they were more aggressive, compared to other local reporters.
"We had trouble with them busting through lines we established to keep people out of critical instances," Tussing said.
The chief said his officers had good relationships with individual reporters, but felt the aggressive newsgathering tactics came from the station and Fox News.
"It was the 'Sherman through Atlanta' philosophy," Tussing said. "They just went full-speed ahead with the story for that day, not sometimes considering the aftershocks and repercussions for their actions."
On the positive side, both Tussing and spokesman Lt. Joe Bryce credited KSVI/KHMT for implementing a news feature that helped nab many local crime suspects.
"They did do us some good with the "Billings Most Wanted" stories they did," Bryce said.
Jones of Nexstar, which is buying the Fox affiliate, said he couldn't respond to Tussing's comments.
"We were not involved and it was not on our watch," he said.
Jan Falstad can be contacted at (406) 657-1306 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.