Market Eye: Dispatching the Competition in Indy

WTHR has its crown back, but the rivals are upping their game in sports-mad central Indiana

Indianapolis is clearly a football town, with the Colts’ preseason workouts drawing news crews and keen interest. It is, famously, a basketball town, and hosts a pretty well-known auto race as well. So rabid is the local interest in sports that the startup soccer club Indy Eleven has its games on WNDY— and the team is not even in MLS.

Airing the games is par for the course, if we can mix metaphors, for WISH-WNDY. “We’re very involved— we’re part of a lot of terrific community events,” says Jay Howell, LIN Media VP of television.

Howell is spending time in DMA No. 26 these days, interviewing potential general managers following Jeff White’s departure in June. The market’s quality of life—easy to get around, affordable, clean—makes for a deep applicant pool. “We’ve not had a problem finding good candidates,” Howell says.

One potential downside to being a GM in Indianapolis: competing against WTHR. Out of May’s 100 top local newscasts, WTHR owned 97, says Larry Delia, president/GM. He credits a strong legacy and the tireless backing of Columbus, Ohio–based Dispatch Broadcast Group, estimating WTHR’s staff is about 30% larger than the typical Indy station. “The company has such an incredible commitment to local broadcasting,” he says. “They have huge resources and are not afraid to use them.”

NBC affiliate WTHR won all the major news races in the May sweeps, including total- day with a 5.1 household rating/12 share, ahead of WISH’s 3.5/8. While WISH won prime, WTHR’s 7.3 rating at 11 p.m. topped CBS outlet WISH’s 4.7, and Fox-aligned WXIN put up a 5.2 at 10. WTHR grabbed an estimated $43.2 million in 2013, according to BIA/Kelsey, while WISH tallied $34.5 million.

WNDY is the MyNetworkTV affiliate. Besides LIN, Tribune has the other duopoly in Fox-CW couple WXIN-WTTV. Scripps owns ABC outlet WRTV, and LeSea has Christian independent WHMB. Comcast is Indianapolis’s primary subscription TV operator.

With 3½ years on the job, WRTV’s Larry Blackerby is the market’s senior GM. Delia, formerly the general manager at the local Trib pair, took over WTHR in June 2013 when John Cardenas shifted to the WBNS Columbus top spot. WRTV is the master control hub for the Scripps group; time will tell how that role expands as Scripps merges with Journal Broadcast Group.

The station added weekend morning news in September. “When you’re the last one in, it takes a while,” says Blackerby. “But I’m happy with the content and where it’s going.”

WNDY expanded its 10 p.m. news to an hour in January and offers a variety of Colts programs. “We’re the Colts station—we take that seriously,” says Howell.

WTHR had its own news expansion earlier in the year, starting at 4 a.m. to match the early morning efforts of WXIN. “If you’re going to be the news leader, you want viewers to start the day off with you,” says Delia. “There was no reason not to be on at 4.”

Eric Halvorson.JPGThe station has a seven-person investigative team, and is up for a pair of national Emmys, given out next month in New York. Meteorologist Angela Buchman, formerly of WISH, was added to the weather team in September.

While the ad market is a bit soft, the managers say Indianapolis’ considerable qualities, from the sports culture to unepected pleasures like the shrimp cocktail at St. Elmo’s Steakhouse (“you’ve never tasted anything like it,” says Howell), make central Indiana a standout place to live and work. “Major sports, theater and cultural events,” says Delia, “there’s just so much going on.”

WHAT’S WORKING IN INDIANAPOLIS: WTHR, VIEWERS ‘PLEDGE’ TO FIGHT CRIME

Indianapolis is not without a crime issue, and WTHR is using its vast reach to stand up to it—and to encourage viewers to do the same. Following a particularly violent recent weekend that saw a police officer killed in the line of duty, the station launched a crime-fighting initiative called Blue Pledge, in which viewers vow to pick up the phone and call 911 when they witness a crime. “It just seemed like a natural thing for us as Indiana’s news leader to do to empower our viewers,” says news director Kathy Hostetter.

Larry Delia, WTHR general manager, likens it to New York City’s “If you see something, say something” anti-terrorism campaign. He says around 5,000 people have taken the pledge. “We have such a large voice in the market,” he says. “We need to use it in the right way.”

Note: On Aug. 11, CBS announced it will affiliate with Tribune's WTTV in Indianapolis as of Jan. 1.