In Chicago, It's an Institution
WGN has a deep and lasting bond with viewers in the Windy City
By Paige Albiniak -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/26/2004 8:00:00 PM
Tribune has A Hold On Chicago
With hundreds of channels coming at consumers via cable, satellite or over the air, any kind of identity at all is hard to come by. But Tribune's WGN-TV, -AM or Superstation have managed to represent Chicago since the day they were founded in 1924, 1948 and 1978, respectively.
"We are truly part of the local fabric of Chicago," says Tom Ehlmann, WGN's general manager. "Generations of Chicagoans have watched this station from the time they were kids until the time they were old people. A lot of stations change their tag line frequently, but this station has been 'Chicago's Very Own' for years and years. That's what makes us successful."
The Chicago Tribune, the cornerstone of the entire Tribune Co., started that tradition. Founded in 1847 with 400 copies printed by hand, the newspaper went on to thrive, even after the great Chicago fire of 1871. The paper's slogan, "World's Greatest Newspaper," went on to become the call letters of the company's broadcast holdings.
Smartly, Tribune and WGN have maintained that identity by airing lots of local news and sticking with Chicago sports teams. Tribune owns the Chicago Cubs (and the team's home, Wrigley Field), and WGN-TV and Superstation WGN air 70 Cubs games each year. (Superstation WGN doesn't air in Chicago because of the FCC's exclusivity rules but is carried in almost 64 million homes nationwide via cable and satellite.) Tribune doesn't own the White Sox but still carries 30 of the American League team's games each season.
This season was the first that WGN aired the Cubs and Sox home games in high-definition.
"We're very committed to high-definition programming," says Pat Mullen, president of Tribune Broadcasting. "We are the first television station in the country to make the commitment we have to production of local sports in high-definition.
"There's a lot of buzz about high-def," Mullen adds. "When people see it in a bar or in another person's home, they are absolutely taken aback by it."
Besides the Cubs and the White Sox, WGN also airs 15 of the Chicago Bulls' home games. Those games will be in high-definition this season.
WGN prides itself on its strong local-news presence, airing 32 hours a week of news, including a four-hour block each morning. "That morning show is a big deal," Ehlmann says, with ABC's Good Morning America competing as it does against NBC's The Today Show and CBS's The Early Show.
But it's not as local as it once was; no TV station is, for that matter. The Bozo Show, a local version of the syndicated kids show, was a huge hit in Chicago through the '80s—moms literally used wait for years to get tickets to the show. Other shows, such as Garfield Goose, Family Classics and The Ray Rayner Show, gave WGN a character other stations in town couldn't touch. So did The Farm Report which was well watched in the Midwest. Harry Caray, the late sportscaster, did play-by-play for other stations and other teams, but it was his time at WGN and the Cubs that solidified him as a legend, particularly because the games were beamed nationwide over Superstation.
NBC's WMAQ and ABC's WLS are the market leaders in Chicago, but WGN manages to be very competitive with its news programs. It broadcasts news in off-times to stay competitive—coming in early at 5 a.m. to get a jump on the networks' big morning shows and doing a newscast at noon when everyone else is airing talk shows or soaps. It also comes on early after The WB's prime time, doing an evening newscast at 9 p.m., an hour before everyone else begins theirs.
In 2003, WGN generated more than $135 million in revenue, according to BIA.
Rating-wise, WGN's news comes in second or third most of the time. It beats Fox at 9 p.m. and often beats CBS's 10 p.m. ratings even though the two shows don't go head to head. It loses to Good Morning America and Today from 7 to 9 a.m. and comes in second or third from 5 to 7 a.m.. It wins at noon, but that's because no one else is airing news.
It is one of the top revenue-producing stations in the market, but WMAQ is the top biller, and WLS is second.
"This is an extremely competitive market," says Larry Wert, president and general manager of WMAQ. In a unique arrangement, Wert oversees Paxson's WCPX through a joint sales agreement and also runs Telemundo's WSNS, which NBC owns. WMAQ manages to remain the market's top-billing station even with Tribune's huge hometown footprint and a strong ABC station that has the privilege of being Oprah Winfrey's home and television birthplace, Wert says.
Wert credits Tribune for managing to convert WGN into a younger-skewing station once it became a WB affiliate in 1995. Tribune helped its cause by adding off-net sitcoms to its schedule, attracting younger women with such shows as Friends and Will & Grace in its access and late-fringe blocks, drawing people away from game shows, local news and entertainment magazines.
Next year, WGN will start running HBO's Sex and the City. It also has Buena Vista's My Wife and Kids ready to go at 5 p.m. to lead into the access blocks.
"We serve a lot of different audiences here," Ehlmann says. "It really changes depending on what daypart you are looking at."
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