FOX to acquire San Francisco’s KTVU from Cox Media

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NewKTVUlogoFOX Television and Cox Media Group announced a station swap on Tuesday that will see San Francisco affiliate KTVU-TV Channel 2 come under FOX control.

Under the deal, FOX would acquire KTVU and independent sister-station KICU Channel 36 from Cox, with the latter receiving FOX’s stations in Boston (WFXT, Channel 25) and Memphis (WHBQ, Channel 13).

The deal, which is expected to be finalized pending regulatory approval, would put the San Francisco television market in a unique position in which every major local TV station would be owned by a network. The market’s ABC (KGO), NBC (KNTV) and CBS (KPIX) affiliates are already owned-and-operated stations; the market’s CW affiliate (KBCW) is owned by CBS, which has partial ownership in the network.

KTVU was an attractive deal for FOX given both its market presence — FOX will now have O&Os in the top six television markets in the country — as well as the station’s local rights to air San Francisco 49ers football games.

According to the publication Variety, FOX’s stations in Boston and Memphis will remain affiliates of the network once the swap to Cox is complete. Cox, which is losing its flagship station in San Francisco after five decades, said it was sad to see KTVU and KICU go, but was excited to enter two new markets.

“This is the first time we have had a media presence in Boston and Memphis, and CMG is excited about the prospects that WFXT-TV and WHBQ-TV bring to our business,” Cox president Bill Hoffman said in a press release, adding that both stations would “fit nicely” into Cox’s broadcast portfolio.

KTVU and WFXT’s general managers will swap places once the transaction is complete, with KTVU general manager Tom Raponi heading to Boston and WFXT’s Gregg Kelley moving to Oakland.

Tuesday’s deal will present editorial challenges not only for FOX, but for KTVU’s informal newsroom partners.

Stations that are not owned by FOX, including KTVU, often repudiate the national FOX News Channel’s reputation as delivering news tailored to the politically conservative by carrying separate branding for entertainment and editorial programming. For years, KTVU was known as “FOX 2” during affiliate programming and “Channel 2” or “KTVU 2” during its news broadcasts.

But most FOX-owned stations carrying a single moniker for both programming and news. FOX’s stations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Philadelphia user the same presentation, graphics, music and often air the same out-of-market news stories. It’s unclear if KTVU will be required to rebrand as part of the acquisition; if it does, it will almost certainly face pushback in a market dominated by liberal politics — some of which has already been felt at KTVU.

At Cox, KTVU had for years been the San Francisco leader in local news, but the station began slipping in the ratings following changes implemented by incoming news director Lee Rosenthal, who joined the station several years ago from a Tribune-owned FOX affiliate in Indianapolis.

Newsroom insiders told The Desk last year that both editorial staff and the parent company had grown increasingly dissatisfied with KTVU’s editorial direction since Rosenthal joined. Changes were made in both presentation and news copy that some staffers described as the “FOX-ification” of KTVU.

Things came to a head last July when the station gained international attention and scorn after a news anchor read four racist names during coverage of a plane crash involving a Korean airliner. The station apologized profusely during subsequent newscasts, and management pledged better oversight after meeting with an Asian-American advocacy group one week after the broadcast. Three newsroom staffers were fired over the incident, though none of them were management.

The station swap also presents challenges for KTVU’s informal editorial partnerships with other local news stations in California. For years, KTVU rebuked Sacramento FOX affiliate KTXL in favor of a news partnership with KCRA, the area’s NBC affiliate owned by Hearst. Both KTVU and KCRA used their dominance in their local areas to stay on top while covering out-of-market news: KTVU often provided KCRA with reporters and resources when the NBC affiliate sought to cover stories out of San Francisco, and KCRA did the same with stories from the state capital.

But the swap means KTVU may soon have to play ball with Sacramento’s Tribune-owned FOX affiliate, which often comes dead last in the local news ratings and has nowhere near the number of resources or manpower found at KCRA. It also presents a challenge for KCRA, which may soon find itself relying more heavily on resources from KNTV, the NBC-owned affiliate based in San Jose (about 50 miles south of San Francisco).

KTVU signed on the air in March 1958 and was acquired by a Cox Media Group subsidiary five years later. As an independent station, it was carried across the country on satellite as a “superstation” as well as on Cox-owned cable systems in Northern California, Oregon, Utah and Nevada. Until recently, KTVU’s morning and afternoon newscasts were carried in Reno, Nevada under a unique local market agreement with FOX affiliate KRXI (Channel 11). KTVU’s evening newscasts still air in the Reno market.

In 1986, KTVU joined the newly-formed FOX television network, becoming one of the first stations not owned by the network to carry the entire program lineup. Cox Media Group later acquired San Jose station KICU-TV, creating the market’s first television duopoly. KTVU celebrated 50 years on the air in 2008.

Memo: Cox Media Group Bill Hoffman announces KTVU swap with FOX