By Mark Johnson, VTDigger
The family that founded WCAX-TV announced Thursday, May 4, they are selling the station to an out-of-state media conglomerate for $29 million.
WCAX president Peter Martin said the industry is rapidly consolidating and that it was increasingly impracticable to operate as a single-station owner.
The station, the first started in Vermont, will be sold to Atlanta-based Gray Television, Inc., which owns or operates more than 100 stations in 56 markets. No immediate layoffs are expected.
WCAX, a CBS affiliate, was founded in 1954 by the Martin family and was led for decades by legendary Stuart “Red” Martin, who ran the station until his death in 2005, when his son, Peter, took over.
It is widely considered the most influential television news operation in Vermont.
“Of course it’s bittersweet,” Peter Martin, 76, told VTDigger.org, Thursday. “The bitter is giving up a role, something we’ve done a very long time. The sweet part is that [the sale] secured the future of the organization.”
“What is really pretty clear at this point is that operating as a single independent station is just not viable,” he said.
Martin said technology now allows a station owner to remotely operate stations. To compete, he said a television owner needed to be in at least 30 different markets to have critical mass.
In a letter to employees, the Martins said owning a single station in a small market was “akin to being a small, open boat in an ever-intensifying storm. The threats are many and the odds of survival are shrinking.”
In an interview, Martin said the station was profitable, but the networks were squeezing affiliates for higher payments. He also said there was increasing competition for viewers with services like Netflix and other internet sources.
Martin said they sought Gray because of its reputation for maintaining a commitment to local news. He said they only spoke to one other firm about buying the station. While no layoffs are expected, changes may be made over time, Martin said, as they would have been forced to do had they maintained ownership.
In a statement, Martin noted the family history and commitment to local news.
“WCAX is an integral part of the dynamic communities in which our family has lived, worked, and grown for decades. We welcome Gray to Vermont with the knowledge that its values, resources, and portfolio of similar stations will ensure that WCAX continues providing strong journalism, community leadership, and workplace excellence for many more decades to come,” Martin wrote.
In an interview, he said “these are good owners, quality operators, so the thing will go forward.”
Gray will take over control of the station June 1. Approval by the Federal Communications Commission must also be obtained.
“Gray is thrilled that the Martin family selected us as the new steward of Vermont’s very first television station,” said Kevin Latek, Gray’s executive vice president. “We will proudly build upon WCAX’s strong foundation and six decades of success as we expand into Vermont, northern New York and northern New Hampshire with another great leading local media institution.”
According to Broadcasting and Cable, an industry publication, Gray in 2017 has already has added five other stations to its portfolio—CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates in Fairbanks, Alaska, an ABC affiliate in Green Bay, Wis., and an NBC affiliate covering the Illinois and Iowa region in the Quad Cities market.
According to a Gray statement the $29 million represented an “attractive purchase price.”
Martin said the proceeds of the sale would be split among four members of the family, including himself. He said he would have no role in the station after the sale is completed.