For the tens of thousands of kids and kids at heart who lined downtown Raleigh’s streets Saturday, the annual Christmas parade brought the same festive spirit it always does.
They screamed in glee as two giant balloons – one a shark, the other Kermit the Frog in a Christmas hat – weaved from side to side of the parade route. The shark’s handlers directed him to veer near the parade goers, while Kermit was simply a hard amphibian to handle in the gusty winds.
The paradegoers cheered the many high school marching bands, the vintage cars and tractors, the dance troupes, the floats advertising merchants, pageant queens and upcoming Christmas productions. They even applauded two horsepoop scoopers who wore long sleeved “I was naughty this year” T-shirts as they shoveled up the dung.
As they enjoyed the 73rd annual parade on a perfect fall day, two local TV stations battled for viewers with live broadcasts at both ends of the route. For the first time in 44 years, WRAL lost the right to be the parade’s official TV sponsor to WTVD. WRAL broadcast the event anyway.
WRAL positioned its broadcast team at Edenton and Hillsborough streets near the start of the parade route. It was a much narrower spot than WTVD’s in front of its downtown newsroom on Fayetteville Street near the end of the route, but the location gave WRAL a half-hour start on its broadcast.
Big signs at WRAL’s site advertised it as “YOUR HOMETOWN STATION.” WTVD is headquartered in Durham. WTVD, meanwhile, had its logo on nearly every float, and two people dressed in yellow number one costumes bopped side-by-side (WTVD is channel 11 on the dial) along the parade route.
Doug Lester, 75, of Raleigh, stood about 20 feet from WRAL’s platform. He said he’s been going to the parade since the mid 1970s, about the same length of time WRAL has been broadcasting it.
But that didn’t make him a fan of the station for crashing the parade.
“I like WRAL, I know (company CEO) Jim Goodmon, I like him, but why would they?” Lester said. “They’re like spoiled brats.”
Chris Hamill, 49, of Fuquay Varina laughed at WRAL’s chutzpah for starting its broadcast 30 minutes ahead of WTVD.
“Oh my God, that’s hilarious,” he said.
Many others, though, knew nothing about the battle between the two stations – and didn’t care. Renee Torres, 45, of Fayetteville, made the trip up with her husband for the first time because she’s a regular WTVD viewer.
“They gave it so much hype on the news I wanted to see what it was all about,” she said.
Did it meet the hype?
“It was everything I expected, a lot of participation, very organized,” she said afterward. “It was great and I’ll be back next year.”
Torres had stood across the street from WTVD’s platform, which gave her a good view of the spot where the parade halted for dancing and singing performances. That’s among the firsts for the parade this year, said Jennifer Martin, executive director of the Greater Raleigh Merchants Association, which puts on the parade.
Martin said the turnout appeared strong, buoyed in part by the weather. In the weeks leading up to the parade, she fretted over WRAL’s plans to broadcast it, fearing the association would have a harder time getting good bids for an official TV sponsor in future parades.
On Saturday, Martin and representatives for WTVD and WRAL chose to focus on how well the parade went.
“People were smiling, they were taking pictures, they were making memories, and that’s what this whole thing is about,” said Martin, who also praised WTVD for a “phenomenal” job.
Caroline Welch, WTVD’s general manager said in an email message the parade was “super fun and we hope the viewers and parade-goers enjoyed it as much as we did!”
Steve Hammel, WRAL’s vice president and general manager, said: “My bottom line is it was a gorgeous day. The parade went well. And when you do it 44 times you kind of get the hang of doing it and our team did a great job doing it.”
The broadcast numbers won’t be known until Sunday, and if they suggest future headaches for Martin and the merchants association for the next sponsorship contract, at least there’s nearly a year’s time to figure out a way to deal with it.