Election Night was a good time to be an NBC affiliate. Just ask the news director for the local ABC station.
Riding the wave of NBC’s national election coverage, Little Rock’s KARK won the local ratings battle as Donald J. Trump won the political war.
Even a fierce competitor accustomed to winning, News Director Nick Genty of KATV, Little Rock’s ABC station, conceded the success by his NBC rival, which won the viewership race every quarter-hour from 6:30 p.m. to the wee hours, according to figures from ComScore.
“Across the country, it was a great night” for NBC, Genty said, pointing to reports that NBC led in primetime network coverage with just under 12 million viewers compared with 9.7 million for ABC and 8.8 million for CBS, according to the Nielsen Co.
Austin Kellerman, news director for KARK and its sister station, KLRT, known as Fox16, said the station had made political reporting a top priority over the past years. “From hosting debates to series on medical marijuana to exposing issues in the election process, we positioned ourselves for these results.”
KARK reported a 46 percent increase in viewership from the 2012 election, when its broadcast averaged 46,000 viewers. There are more than 540,000 viewers in the Little Rock market, according to analytics, but of course not all are watching at any one time.
Kellerman called this year’s election remarkable, and an example of “having to think on your toes and reassess plans during an event as it happens.” The polls, of course, suggested that Hillary Clinton would win the presidential race, “but that’s the opposite of what we started to see; fortunately our crews responded quickly” and transformed the unexpected Trump groundswell into the story.
Josh Berry reported from Next Level Events in Union Station as a Democratic watch party petered out. The night ended with dejected Clinton supporters filing out as Trump surged in battleground states.
Shannon Miller, on the other hand, “stuck it out at the Embassy Suites with the die-hard GOP race watchers,” Kellerman said. “The scene was pretty surreal and unexpected. By the time [Miller] left following Mr. Trump’s speech, only three people remained at the watch party. That became the story and the focus the next morning.”
Genty said his crew at KATV worked long hours, captured key moments of the night and had the first interviews with many race winners. “KATV was the first station in the market on air with election results and analysis,” he said. “In fact KATV broke the story of the most important local race, Issue 6, the marijuana amendment. It was Roby Brock and KATV that called that race long before any other media outlet. That’s what a No. 1 station does.”
Genty said KATV is “the market leader in all news programs in households and demos,” and that except in the cases where another network has an unusually strong lead-in, it consistently tops Little Rock’s newscast ratings. But he did compliment the competition.
KARK anchor Bob Clausen, whose Little Rock election memories stretch back to standing in front of the Old State House watching Bill Clinton claim re-election in 1996, figured that Trump’s unconventional campaign meant that Election Night this year would “be unlike any other, and about a lot more than just ‘pizza night’ in the newsroom.”
Would it result in the first female president, or a true outsider taking the White House?
“It was a cage match and it didn’t disappoint from a spectator’s point of view,” he said. “We knew we had to balance network and local coverage, and the story of the night was moving from coast to coast. We wanted to keep Arkansans informed about Arkansas, but also knew Arkansas was watching the nation. So we made sure our coverage was up-to-the-minute, relevant and quick on the local races and issues,” like medical marijuana, “then we’d get out of the way of what was happening in America.”
Clausen praised Kellerman and Assistant News Director Ernie Paulson for preparing the team well, and reporter and “Capitol View” host Drew Petrimoulx for his political expertise. “Everyone in front of and behind the camera was in the zone, and sometimes that’s not the case. We have the scars from those nights to keep us in check. A lot of credit goes to Austin for making sure we didn’t ‘pull the trigger.’ We took aim at what we wanted to do, thought it out, took a breath and squeezed.”