Market Eye: Going for a Taste of Champaign

Sinclair, Nexstar, Block compete hard in central Illinois market

In their typical markets, stations owned by Sinclair and Nexstar are not the main combatants in the race for local news primacy. But in the heart of Illinois, it’s a different story. Sinclair’s WICS and Nexstar’s WCIA do fierce battle, covering the massive University of Illinois, the state capital and everything in between in Champaign-Springfield-Decatur.

“The company embraces sales and news and digital and how it affects the community,” says Rick Lipps, WICS general manager.

But it’s more than a two-horse race in DMA No. 85. WAND, Block Communications’ NBC affiliate, twirls some magic of its own. In November, WCIA, a CBS affiliate, won the total-day household ratings race, a point ahead of both ABC affiliate WICS and WAND. WCIA took the early a.m. derby, won early evenings by a point and put up an 8 household rating/22 share in late news, ahead of WICS’6/15. WCIA’s 5/20 in adults 25-54 at 10 p.m. was also the winner.

0202_MarketEye_Chart.jpgWCIA has added 10 hours of news a week over the last three years, and is dogged in its coverage of local events, such as the Illinois Marathon. There’s a three-person bureau in the Springfield capital, providing WCIA and other Nexstar stations that have Illinois interests with the latest political info. It also has “First 100 Days” segments in the news, keeping tabs on Gov. Bruce Rauner as he works to pull Illinois out of a financial pit. “Our team strategy of doing more locally is one of the big reasons [for WCIA’s success],” says Coby Cooper, VP and general manager.

While it’s a capital and a university market, Champaign-Springfield-Decatur’s economy is ailing. BIA/Kelsey has it at a grim No. 95 in terms of revenue. “It’s not a boom market by any stretch of the imagination,” says Lipps. “We’re looking to rebound in ’15.” Nexstar also owns MyNetwork-TV affiliate WCIX. Sinclair operates the GoCom-owned stations—a pair of Fox affiliates in WCCU and WRSP and CW station WBUI. Springfield and Champaign are roughly 85 miles apart, with Decatur in the middle.

Comcast is the market’s primary subscription TV operator.

WCIA has been beefing up its local programming presence. In September it debuted Current, a 9 a.m. newscast targeting women. With Ellen shifting to WICS, Cooper moved Rachael Ray to 3 p.m. and slotted Current in its place. “We take contemporary news and tell the audience what it means,” says Cooper. WCIA does not subscribe to Nielsen ratings, but Rentrak shows Current outperforming Rachael Ray in the new slot, Cooper says.

The GoCom stations flipped the switch on HD in January. Lipps says the WICS news department has “reengineered” morning news. “New content, new talent, new graphics,” he says. “It really is a nice-looking show.”

Lipps arrived in August, and while his new environs may not be as visually appealing as his previous post in Charleston, S.C., it feels like home. “I’m not looking out onto the ocean—it’s not the vacation capital of the world,” he says. “But the people are great.”

THREE CITIES, TWO ABC’S, TWO FOX’S

Sinclair’s reach in central Illinois is impressive. The group owns separate, full-power ABC affiliates on both sides of the market: WICS in Springfield, and WICD in Champaign. Sinclair also operates a pair of Fox affiliates: WRSP in Springfield and WCCU in Urbana.

While some functions are shared between the ABC stations, and network and syndicated programming are simulcasted, Newschannel 15/20 tailors its news to both sides of the vast market, and can target advertisers on both sides as well—a substantial point of differentiation in Champaign-Springfield- Decatur. “It’s something no one else in the market can do,” says Rick Lipps, WICS general manager.

WICS and WICD have separate websites, while the two Fox’s share FoxIllinois.com. Both ABC operations have their own newsrooms and pitch in when news happens smack in the middle in Decatur.