Market Eye: ‘Eye’ on the Ball in Ohio

WBNS, like the state capital and the quintessential big university town it rules, is built to last

John Cardenas is back where he belongs. The longtime WBNS Columbus news director left to be GM at sister WTHR Indianapolis in 2010, getting the listing powerhouse moving forward and picking up B&C’s General Manager of the Year honors in 2011 for his efforts. When the GM job opened up back at Dispatch-owned WBNS last April, Cardenas returned. “We did incredible things in Indianapolis and look to do the same here,” Cardenas says. “It’s good to be home.”

The competition may have gotten better in Buckeye country, and it definitely has gotten bigger. NBC affiliate WCMH is part of Media General, which has merged with LIN to form one of the modern supergroups. The mother of all supergroups, Sinclair, owns ABC affiliate WSYX and operates Cunningham’s Fox station WTTE and Manhan Media-owned CW outlet WWHO. WSYX, with MyNetworkTV and This TV on its dot-two, has emerged as a legit No. 2 contender in the market.

Dan Bradley, WCMH VP and general manager, acknowledges the challenge facing his station. “Dispatch has radio, magazine and newspaper [holdings in Columbus]. Sinclair has three stations,” he says. “We’re here with NBC and Me-TV—we’re the scrappy street fighter.”

CBS affiliate WBNS cruised through the May sweeps ratings, winning all key races. WBNS’ 6.1 total-day household rating/14 share clobbered WSYX’s 3.6/9. WBNS’ 8.9/18 at 11 p.m. also bested WSYX’s 4.4/9, while WTTE put up a booming 7.5/12 at 10 and robust adults 25-54 numbers. WTTE was the U.S.’ top Fox affiliate in primetime in May.

It’s no wonder owners are investing in their stations in DMA No. 32. Columbus is the state capital, home to the massive Ohio State University and global corporations including Nationwide Insurance, Limited Brands and Wendy’s. “There’s not a lot of peaks and valleys here,” says Dan Mellon, GM at WSYX-WTTEWWHO. “The economy is usually very steady.”

Time Warner Cable is the major subscription operator. Bradley mentions a “homogeneous” viewing public: there are no hyphens, state borders, mountains or rivers bisecting the DMA. “There’s a high level of commonality within the market,” he says.

Capitalizing on the region’s rabid interest in OSU Buckeyes football, WSYX airs The Football Fever weekly. (“The” is pronounced with emphasis, as in “The Ohio State University.”) Sinclair will also program to football fanatics when its American Sports Network debuts later this month.

Columbus stations are doing all they can to get ahead. WCMH introduced its NBC4 Investigates team earlier this year, and it’s making an impact. “They’ve consistently turned some pretty high-level investigative stories,” says Bradley, a former news director. “There’s clearly an opportunity for local television, and we didn’t want to miss it.”

WCMH also switched from WSI weather graphics to Baron; Bradley calls the move “a step up for viewers.”

The Sinclair cluster is working closely with local Clear Channel radio properties, sharing some news and weather reporting. WTTE’s Good Day Columbus extended to weekend mornings last year.

Cardenas, who spent 11 years as WBNS news director, credits anchor Kristyn Hartman for a smooth transition after veteran anchor Andrea Cambern relocated to California. “We haven’t missed a beat,” Cardenas says. “That speaks to Kristyn’s ability.”

Dispatch owns only WBNS and WTHR in the TV world, but their ratings show you don’t have to be a monolith to thrive in local TV. WBNS enjoys an owner that is synonymous with Columbus and one that will spend on top technology, programming and talent. “As a family-owned company, we have a vested interest in the community,” Cardenas says. “The business has gotten very bottom-line-driven. Our company is more quality-driven.”

WHAT’S WORKING IN COLUMBUS: SINCLAIR AIMS TO DEEPEN COMMUNITY TIES WITH TOWN HALL MEETINGS

WSYX hosts three to four town hall meetings per year, tackling everything from medical marijuana to education to healthcare and the Stand Your Ground issue. Ohio Gov. John Kasich kicked off a “Hooked on Heroin” discussion at the Columbus Museum of Art in April, with WSYX anchor Bob Kendrick and Sinclair VP Mark Hyman taking questions from the audience and anchor Yolanda Harris monitoring the social media discussion.

Town hall issues with scope beyond Columbus air in multiple markets. It may be hard to make a connection between the forums and news ratings, but Mellon says they are “accretive” to the ABC 6 brand. “All the things we do as the ‘On Your Side’ station are to be an advocate for viewers,” says Mellon. “It’s another thing in our quiver that allows us to be relevant to the community.”