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No TV For WEBN-FM Fireworks Again?

Tana Weingartner
Riverfest fireworks

If you want to see the 40th anniversary WEBN-FM fireworks, plan on seeing them in person.

Managers of all five Cincinnati TV stations – WLWT-TV, WXIX-TV, WCPO-TV, WKRC-TV and WSTR-TV -- tell me they're not planning to broadcast the Western & Southern/WEBN-FM Riverfest fireworks live at 9:05 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 3.  

With the fireworks less than six weeks away, it seems very unlikely they will be telecast for iHeartMedia, which is under new leadership here.  Cincinnati market manager Chuck Fredrick and programming vice president Bo Michaels were let go in May. Fredrick, the WEBN-FM/WLW-AM general manager for many years, was the main force negotiating the TV contract.

Credit WEBN-FM
Logo for the 40th Western & Southern/WEBN-FM fireworks in 2016.

For 31 years, WEBN-FM's "last blast of summer" was broadcast by either Channel 5, 9, 12 or 19. The tradition ended in 2015, when Channel 19 didn't renew its TV contract with WEBN-FM and parent iHeartMedia.  

After the one-year absence, Channel 12's Jon Lawhead stepped up last year to get the TV rights – although he cut the telecast from the usual two hours to one hour. That deal was announced last year two months before Riverfest, on July 6, 2016.

The WEBN-FM fireworks have always been one of the highest-rated local programs every year -- and also one of the most expensive to produce. The host TV station needs to rent a live TV production truck, and deploy multiple cameras to broadcast reporters on each side of the Ohio River and the anchors hosting the show, and to capture the pyrotechnics up close and from a distance.

Fox 19  let its contract expire with iHeartMedia to do the fireworks and provide weather reports in 2015 because "it didn't make financial sense for us," Debbie Bush, Channel 19 vice president and general manager, said at the time.

Stations can't recoup all of the live production costs (usually north of $50,000) since the fireworks can't be interrupted by advertising breaks. That only leaves commercials before and after the fireworks.

"With only terminal commercial breaks, and a possible replay with built-in breaks, it’s a tough justification," one TV station manager told me.

When the TV plans fell through two years ago, iHeartMedia managers considered doing a live webcast of the fireworks, or taping them and televising the fireworks as a one-hour special the next day, on Labor Day night.

WEBN-FM's first fireworks show was on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 1977 – yes, a Tuesday! – to celebrate the station's 10th birthday. The huge crowd prompted the city to create the end-of-summer Riverfest party ending with Rozzi's Famous Fireworks.

The theme of last year's fireworks was ""Celebrating 40 Years of Fireworks."

This year will be the 40th anniversary fireworks.

John Kiesewetter, who has covered television and media for more than 35 years, has been working for Cincinnati Public Radio and WVXU-FM since 2015.