Local TV

Market Eye: 'Badge' of Honor

Stations in Wisconsin's capital are dedicated to covering major statewide news 10/31/2011 12:01:00 AM Eastern

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Madison, Wis., stations scored big in the first half of the year,
when the debate over collective bargaining roiled the capital and
spots representing all sides of the issue aired on local television. TV station executives here say it was essentially
found money. "It was an unexpected bonus,"
says Bob Smith, regional VP of Gray Television
and general manager at WMTV. "We weren't anticipating
a big political year."

The tap was shut off months ago, but new
political monies may start pouring in centered
around the capital again. A movement is afoot to
recall Gov. Scott Walker. Petitions are scheduled
to go out Nov. 15; some 540,000 signatures will
be needed to move the recall proceedings along.

TV ads may well figure into the politicking. "They have to get the word out some way," says
Tom Bier, acting general manager at WISC. "They may have to build a case for why they
want it to happen, and the other side builds a
case why it shouldn't happen."

Such a lively political landscape makes for strong
TV stations with steely dedication to covering the
myriad local issues. Morgan Murphy’s CBS affiliate,
WISC, has long been a power in DMA No. 85. But
a major management change recently went down
with the resignation of longtime general manager
David Sanks and Bier taking over the day-to-day
until a successor is named. Bier has spent almost
40 years at the station, most recently
as station manager, and offers a
steady hand amidst the transition.

"They have a lot of consistency
over there," says WMTV’s Smith.

That consistency enabled WISC to
put up its usual robust numbers in
last May’s sweeps. WISC won totalday
household ratings and primetime,
along with the early evening
and late news races—taking the latter
with a 7 household rating/19 share.
(NBC affiliate WMTV, which won the
morning news race, and ABC outlet
WKOW were virtually tied at 5/13.)

The revenue race in Madison has
tightened. BIA/Kelsey had WISC
on top in 2010 with an estimated
$15.5 million, ahead of WMTV's $13.7 million.
But an audit from Hungerford shows WMTV in
the top revenue spot this year.

Charter is the major cable operator. Quincy
Newspapers owns WKOW, Sinclair owns Fox affiliate WMSN and Acme has CW affiliate WBUW.

Bier credits family-owned Morgan Murphy for
WISC's success, and an investment in local product
that keeps talent from moving on to larger
markets. "A lot of people come here and don't
leave—department heads, staff, on-air," says Bier.
"They know the community and understand what
it's about. I think the community recognizes that."

Smith believes WMTV is top of mind when
there is severe weather and breaking news.
"Our brand is the weather authority, and we
pound that pretty hard," he says. "We're usually
first to break into programming for breaking
news and weather."

WMTV also has an active social media strategy,
with text alerts for breaking news, along with
6,700 Twitter followers and more than 20,000
Facebook fans—both tops among Madison stations.
The station is part of the "Badger News
Network," a news-sharing setup between it,
Local TV's WITI Milwaukee and LIN's WLUK
Green Bay. "It's politics, sports, whatever makes
sense in their markets," says Smith.

The recent success of the local football and
baseball teams is a far cry from how it used to be.
"Being a Badgers-Packers-Brewers fan in the 1970s
was dismal," says Smith. "We all look at each other
now like, wow, it's been a good run."

Stations are doing all they can to pull ahead. WMTV and
WISC added 4:30 a.m. news in October 2010, and WMTV just marked a year since it
started its Sunday news at 6 a.m. instead of 7. WKOW, with its "We've Got You
Covered" brand, grabbed a 2011 Columbia DuPont award-one of only five stations
to do so-for its "Who's Protecting You?" investigative series on shortcomings
in the state's consumer protection department.

WMSN, which airs 9 p.m. news, has added syndicated The
Big Bang Theory
to its air. WISC has Anderson in place of Oprah
at 4. WBUW puts a local spin on morning news on The Daily Buzz.

The local economy has not enjoyed the same run of success
as the local sports teams. The new collective bargaining regulations have many
workers paying more for health insurance, giving them less discretionary
income. Some are still struggling to find work after GM closed a plant in
nearby Janesville three years ago. It helps to have government and the giant
state university as primary employers, but it's not been enough to stave off
the economic chill. "In past recessions, people said Madison was
recession-proof," says Bier. "This time around, everyone has been hurt."

But station managers suspect the worst is over in
Madison. "People feel the ship is not tipping as much as it was," adds Bier.
"There's a little more cautious optimism than pessimism...maybe."

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and follow him on Twitter: @BCMikeMalone

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