Market Eye: Gone With the Wind

Station chiefs are coming and going in Chicago’s lively news market

Why This Matters

What’s Working In Chicago

NBC desperately needs a jump-start in primetime, and WMAQ is playing up some of the network’s rookie dramas with ties to the Windy City. The post-blackoutthemedRevolution has featured key scenes in the market, including one at a desolate Wrigley Field. Chicago Fire, which debuts Oct. 10, is set in a local firehouse.

Chicago Fire cast members turned up for Firefighter Appreciation Night at Wrigley recently, and NBC will screen the show at the Chicago History Museum. The Dick Wolf drama will also get airtime on the Soldier Field Jumbotron for an upcoming Notre Dame football game. “We’ve had a lot of engagement with the city to bring awareness to the show,” says Larry Wert, WMAQ president/GM.

Chicago Fire cast members will also appear in WMAQ’s Chicago Marathon coverage Oct. 7. “One of the great things about [Comcast] is they encourage us to use the entire family to promote and support new initiatives,” says Wert. —MM

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There’s an abundance of new leadership in Chicago television, which will
likely usher in fresh strategies and looks for the stations. In mid-September,
CBS announced that Bruno Cohen, president/general manager of WBBM,
was taking over sister station KPIX San Francisco. Taking Cohen’s place
at WBBM is Marty Wilke, who departed the top spot at WGN Chicago.

Back in June, John Idler shifted from ABC-owned
WTVD Raleigh (N.C.) to the GM job at ABC’s WLS
Chicago, following Emily Barr’s departure to run the
Post-Newsweek station group.

Chicago TV veterans say they can’t recall this amount
of GM turnover since Barr and WMAQ president/GM
Larry Wert arrived some 15 years ago.

Wilke says she was pleased to see a lot of familiar
faces while touring WBBM. “Chicago is a really big
small town,” she says. “I look forward to getting in and
working with Bruno’s team.”

Idler’s ascendancy to WLS president/GM represents
his third tour at the station. He’s unimpressed by the
management churn in the market. “The only one I’m
concerned with is the one at WLS,” Idler says.

WLS is one of the most prominent stations in the country.
The station once again ruled the May sweeps, winning
all the major races, including the 10 p.m. news with an
8.5 household rating/15 share, ahead of WMAQ’s 5.6/10,
and beating WMAQ in adults 25-54 by a point.

Idler says the key to WLS’ perennial success is dedicated
staffers with unsurpassed knowledge of DMA
No. 3, along with tireless community service. “It really
is the people,” Idler says. “They know Chicago like
nobody else.”

Comcast-NBCUniversal owns WMAQ and Telemundo
station WSNS. Comcast also is the market’s main
subscription TV operator. Tribune owns WGN, a CW
affiliate. Steve Farber, VP of programming operations at
Tribune Broadcasting, is acting GM. Fox owns WFLD
and MyNetworkTV outlet WPWR. Weigel holds the independent
WCIU, while Univision has WGBO-WXFT.

Comcast has been investing mightily in WMAQ, evident
in a massive 21-by-7-foot wall monitor unveiled on
the set over Labor Day weekend, adding a wow factor to
breaking news or weather. The station has an expanded
investigative reporting unit and recently relaunched noon
and weekend-morning newscasts after they had been
scrapped during the recession. Rookie syndicated show
Steve Harvey is shot at WMAQ’s HD studios. And the station
is featuring more dual-anchor broadcasts than in the
pre-Comcast, cost-cutting days. “Adding fast-paced content
works better with a dual anchor team,” says Wert.

While he acknowledges that ratings performance is
based on a number of elements, Wert suggests WMAQ’s
ratings are on the rise. “I think we’re reaping the rewards
of investments we’ve made,” he says. “I think
we’re well under way.”

WBBM also has expanded on weekends, plugging
in Saturday 8 a.m. and Sunday 7 a.m. newscasts on
Sept. 22-23. Cohen speaks of an invigorated newsroom.
“We’re not there yet, but Marty comes in with a
lot of momentum,” he says.

The Fox-owned stations have Ricki Lake and Dish
, along with Chicago Bears pre- and regularseason
games and a big local radio voice in a new role
this fall. Controversial host “Mancow” Muller will be
the star of a 6-8 a.m. simulcast on WPWR. “He’s an
interesting and dynamic character,” says Mike Renda,
WPWR VP/GM. “He’s something else, and what we’re
trying to do is capture that.”

Fox, NBC, CBS and Tribune are involved in a content
share known as LNS, short for Local News Service.
While NBC has pulled out of similar arrangements in
markets including Philadelphia and Los Angeles, a station
rep says it is status quo in Chicago. WLS’ Idler, for
his part, shares his predecessor Barr’s view on content
pooling. “We have no interest at all,” he says.

The local economic picture is fairly bleak. President
Obama, who of course came of age politically in the
market, has Illinois sewn up in the presidential election,
though a handful of Congressional races will kick
some funds to station coffers. “I think we’ll see a lot of
activity between now and Election Day,” says Renda.

Political spending aside, Idler speaks of a “general
malaise” among Chicagoans amidst economic uncertainty.
“We’re starting to see some good signs,” he says,
“but the marketplace always could be better.”

The stations are optimistic that new seasons for the
networks will spark some hits. WMAQ is pushing hard
on Comcast CEO Steve Burke’s “Project Symphony”
philosophy, which sees all tentacles of the prodigious
Comcast-NBCUniversal empire abetting each other’s
initiatives. “It’s pretty powerful to put your
message across so many entities and platforms,” Wert
says, “without getting a bill.”

The newsrooms of course had the public school
teachers’ strike to cover in September—a Chicago story
that went national. “Chicago is a great news town,”
says Renda. “There’s always a lot of news going on.
There’s always some drama.”

Adds the departed Cohen: “It’s a tough town to leave.”

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