Market Eye: Growth Vehicles In South Bend

One newsroom celebrates a birthday as the local ratings race tightens in ‘Michiana’

As the recreational vehicle industry goes, so goes South Bend-Elkhart, Ind. While Notre Dame dominates the South Bend side of the market, Elkhart is the world leader in RV production. “If you’re in the RV business, pretty much you’re here,” says John O’Brien, VP and general manager at WNDU.

Located in the Michigan-Indiana border region known as “Michiana,” South Bend-Elkhart was as hard hit economically as almost any market in the U.S. But a surging manufacturing industry has it rolling once again. “The RV business has been real healthy, and Notre Dame has been building up, and there are jobs that go with that,” says Jeff Guy, general manager at WBND, WCWW, WMYS and about a million subchannels. “The economy has been pretty good the last few years.”

WBND is responsible for job creation, too. Under the direction of Guy and news director Aaron Ramey, WBND built a news operation from scratch, launching April 4, 2011. It went from 18 staffers to 60, producing 27 hours of news per week. Guy speaks of the operation as one would one’s own child. “It’s interesting to see how far we’ve come,” he says. “I’m proud to see how much progress we’ve made.”

But WSBT is the news power. Schurz Communications, based in the market, takes tremendous pride in its hometown CBS affiliate. WSBT is undergoing a big transformation on the air, with a new evening anchor team as of September 2013 and new First Thing in the Morning crew as of January. Bob Montgomery and Leanne Tokars are the a.m. duo; Montgomery was the longtime news director and morning anchor at sister WSBT-AM.

WSBT featured another talent shakeup when chief meteorologist Paul Emmick departed in March. The station is taking a “team approach,” in the words of Sally Brown, president and general manager, with no chief.

WNDU, Gray Television’s NBC affiliate, got a ratings boost from the Olympics in February and has emerged as a force in adults 25-54. In last November’s sweeps, WSBT won total-day household ratings and WNDU took the 25-54 title. WSBT won primetime and the household races for morning and early evenings; WNDU was tops in the demo in the latter two. WSBT put up a 5.8 household rating and 23.7 share at 11 p.m., bettering WNDU’s 5/20.5, while the NBC affiliate again took the demo title.

Quincy Newspapers owns Fox affiliate WSJV. LeSea has independent WHME, which airs a mix of religious fare, classic syndicated shows and a football and basketball Game of the Week. “People know us for high school sports,” says Peter Sumrall, LeSea president.

Weigel owns the ABC (WBND), CW and MyNetworkTV affiliates, while its multicasts include Telemundo, Me-TV, This TV and Movies!

South Bend-Elkhart jumped from DMA No. 97 to 95 a few years ago but slipped back to 96 in the most recent Nielsen rankings. BIA/ Kelsey slots it No. 96 in revenue—notable for a Midwestern manufacturing region. Comcast is the DMA’s dominant subscription TV operator.

While WSBT has the First Thing in the Morning handle, WNDU starts news a halfhour earlier, at 4:30 a.m. The station has focused on strengthening mornings. “We all know how important that daypart has become in our business,” O’Brien says.

After Weigel’s considerable investment three years ago, Guy says there is room to expand news on both the ABC and CW affiliates. The station deploys a fleet of 11 Live U packs for mobile newsgathering.

WBND’s news is starting to see some ratings gains in the Nielsens, which puts Guy into proud papa mode again. “When the economy was bad, we grew,” he says. “We built something.”

WHAT’S WORKING IN SOUTH BENDELKHART: SOUTH BEND’S SIBLING RIVALRY

If WNDU doesn’t have the only brother and sister anchor duo in the nation, it has one of the exceedingly few. Maureen and Terry McFadden host the 5 p.m. newscast together, Maureen handles 5:30, they’re back together for the 6 and then Terry solos at 11 p.m.

John O’Brien, WNDU VP and general manager, says the McFaddens have been key to the station’s chipping away at WSBT’s eminence. “That they were born and raised here gives us a competitive advantage,” says O’Brien. “They’re able to offer a considerable amount of perspective on stories. They know the people and places they’re talking about.”

Maureen has been with WNDU since 1979. Terry arrived in ‘82, left for a spell and has been anchoring next to his sister since ‘94. Maureen says the familiarity helps on the set. “People think it’s a weird thing to be an anchor with your brother,” Maureen says, “but I’m actually more comfortable.”