Hatton Weeks Returns to KAIT as Raycom Undergoes Acquisition

by Kyle Massey  on Monday, Jul. 9, 2018 12:00 am   5 min read

JONESBORO — KAIT-TV has met the new boss, same as the old boss, but he has a different leadership post.

And Hatton Weeks, the Jonesboro TV news veteran who bounced back as the station’s general manager this year, will likely have new bosses of his own soon.

Publicly traded Gray Television Inc. of Atlanta announced last month that it is acquiring Raycom Media Inc., which owns KAIT and 64 other TV stations, in a $3.65 billion deal expected to close by the end of the year. The company will keep the Gray name and oversee 142 stations reaching 24 percent of the nation’s TV households. But more on that later.

Weeks, a former news director who became GM in March, is determined to give visitors a “5-cent tour” of the station he’s known since he was a teen.

He first points out the newsroom he led before becoming news director of WLBT in Jackson, Mississippi, in early 2015. Next there’s a “fellowship hall” lined with 55 years’ worth of KAIT mementos, then the broadcast studio where he got his start as a 19-year-old cameraman. The man who hired him, News Operations Manager Ronnie Weston, is about to celebrate his 50th year at KAIT.

“There’s a lot of history,” Weeks said. But at 41, the native of nearby Harrisburg is focused on the future. As manager of the dominant TV outlet in northeast Arkansas’ one booming city, he’s poised to capitalize on that growth for Gray, a 100-station giant that will be the country’s third-largest TV chain.

“We’re expecting our market to grow,” Weeks said, pointing out population gains in Jonesboro, which topped 75,000 in the most recent census, up from 30,000 in 1980. Centered in a prime farm region and aided by a manufacturing rebound and the strong presence of Arkansas State University, the city is up by about 20,000 people in the past 20 years alone.

“What we’re seeing is a mass migration out of the Delta and out of the Ozarks, with many coming to Jonesboro to work or go to school,” Weeks said. “They see that it’s a great place to raise a family. They come to call it home. As proud as I am to be a Harrisburg Hornet, my wife and I and our three kids make our home in Jonesboro.”

So Weeks hopes to build on solid TV ratings with a multiplatform approach emphasizing KAIT’s apps, online presence and addition of an NBC channel to complement the station’s relationship with ABC, its affiliate since it started broadcasting in 1963.

“We do have competitors,” he said, mentioning KJNB, which has a smaller local news and sales operation and covers the designated marketing area with CBS and Fox programming. But in today’s media environment, Weeks says, “everybody’s a competitor.” He calls KAIT “a news and information and entertainment delivery system,” a definition he’s been repeating a lot lately. “We deliver no matter what screen viewers are on, and we have to be everywhere because our audience is everywhere.”

KAIT offers four digital applications, including news and weather apps with a remarkable market penetration of 85 percent, according to Weeks. “We hear from cellphone dealers that when they activate phones, the first two apps asked for are our news app and weather app. On our Roku and Amazon devices together, we have some of the highest minutes-watched numbers in Raycom,” which is based in Montgomery, Alabama.

“We’re going to be making upgrades to the hardware we have for streaming. It’s a good viewer experience now, but in the coming months it’ll get a lot better.”

Most of KAIT’s revenue, which is kept private by Raycom, an employee-owned company, still comes from TV advertising, even though cash flow has improved “in a number of online sectors,” Weeks said. That makes KAIT’s 2014 addition of NBC rights in the Jonesboro market a significant development.

For KAIT broadcast viewers, Channel 8.1 in HDTV is the ABC broadcast stream; 8.2 is NBC. “We’re putting ourselves in a position to succeed,” said Weeks, a 1999 A-State graduate. “We’re determined to get in front of enough eyeballs to take advantage of a growing market.”

When it comes to news, though, “Channel 8 is Channel 8,” simulcasting most newscasts on both ABC and NBC streams. “We do a 6:30 p.m. newscast for NBC alone, but otherwise it’s the same,” Weeks said.

On the studio tour, he exchanged pleasantries with longtime anchor Diana Davis, who played a key role in Weeks’ early career. “In my youth I saw Diana at a restaurant and approached her to say I wanted to be the next Peter Jennings,” Weeks said. “She encouraged me and told me that if I could get some radio experience it would help.”

That led the teenage Weeks to spend three years in local radio, but his goal was TV. “I interviewed Hatton to be one of KAIT’s teenage correspondents,” Davis recalled. “I picked him not knowing that he’d end up being my boss.”

After a steady climb at KAIT, beginning as a noon cameraman for anchor Grovernel Grisham and weatherman Terry Wood in 1996, Weeks became news director in 2008 and held the job until leaving for WLBT in January 2015.

Along the way, he helped produce award-winning news reports and cultivated many young broadcast journalists — including incoming Sports Director Chris Hudgison, a KAIT veteran who is following Weeks back from Jackson, and Amanda Hanson, an anchor who was a multimedia journalist at KAIT and at Raycom’s KFVS in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, before bouncing back to Jonesboro. “There were many people who gave me opportunities,” Weeks said, “and I’m proud that I could help develop folks who have gone on to good careers.”

When he returned as GM, Weeks succeeded Chris Conroy, who took over Raycom’s operation in Cape Girardeau.

Details of the Deal
Weeks couldn’t discuss the Gray deal, but Gray’s presentation to investors in late June offered some revealing details.

Gray will get Raycom for $3.6 billion, including $2.8 billion in cash, $650 million in a new series of preferred stock, and 11.5 million shares of Gray stock, which were trading last week in the mid-$15 range. Wells Fargo is underwriting debt financing of $2.52 billion, and both companies’ boards approved the merger unanimously. Gray shareholders will retain 89 percent of the ownership of the company, and the combo will sell off nine stations in markets where Gray and Raycom both have properties.

The deal, which reflects a wave of industry consolidation, would leave Gray behind only the proposed combination of the Sinclair and Tribune companies, which are seeking merger approval, and Nexstar. Gray CEO Hilton Howell will be the combined company’s executive chairman and co-CEO. The president and other co-CEO will be Raycom chief Pat LaPlatney.

As for KAIT specifically, Weeks said first-quarter revenue was a bit off, but that business began picking up in May. “I was looking at the city of Jonesboro’s sales tax revenue, and I saw that this year was a slow start for everybody,” he said. “Things are picking up now, and it’s a good sign. All aspects of our business are now looking up.”

 

 

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