Market Eye: Palmetto State Punch-Up

WIS dominates in S.C., but not the way it used to, competitors say

Digital and social media are reshaping the way news is produced and distributed in Columbia, S.C. Station chiefs speak of staff positions that did not exist a few years ago; WIS has a director of digital media, for one, while WLTX has a social media director spreading the word on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. Longtime leader WIS also rejiggered its newsroom— its first redesign in 20 years, says Donita Todd, VP and general manager. “Workflows have changed a lot, and we needed a transformation too,” she says. “We needed to very closely align with all three platforms.”

Raycom’s WIS has built its advantage on an exhaustive research approach that keeps the station well in tune with what viewers in the South Carolina capital seek from local media. “We constantly pay attention to what the news audience wants,” Todd says. “You can never assume to know what they want.”

Research from the firm AR&D revealed a significant opportunity that required a similarly significant commitment: an investigative unit, which had not existed at WIS before, and Todd says did not exist in the market either. In 2012, the NBC affiliate launched “WIS Investigates.” The unit is comprised of two dedicated reporters and a pair of producers, and everyone in the newsroom is expected to contribute. The market responded with some whopper stories—Election Day polling mishaps, the hacking of millions of taxpayers’ personal info—that simply begged to have a gumshoe on the case.

There was opportunity stemming from downsizing at the local daily newspaper, The State. “It seemed like there was a big void that WIS was capable of filling,” Todd says.

All the stations are on to new things. Last fall, WIS launched 10 a.m. news on Sundays. In October, Gannett’s WLTX debuted another unique news slot: 11 a.m. Saturdays. WLTX is also bullish on its social media strategy, with almost 133,000 fans on Facebook, a robust number for DMA No. 77. (WIS has about 94,000.) “That lets us talk to an awful lot of people about an awful lot of things,” says Rich O’Dell, WLTX president/GM. “It really spurs conversation.”

Bahakel’s WOLO is expanding its morning presence too, moving its 6 a.m. start up to 5 a.m. “A lot of growth in this market seems to be morning news,” says Chris Bailey, VP and general manager.

Sinclair moved into the market when it closed on the Barrington group last November, landing Fox affiliate WACH. Allison Aldridge was named general manager in December. The station has a unique anchor in Bree Boyce, a former Miss South Carolina who had success as a public speaker on weight loss; she has shed 100-plus pounds since her teen years. Boyce started delivering the 10 p.m. news in October.

Another broadcaster with significant reach has also arrived in Columbia. Ion last December acquired WZRB Columbia, the former CW affiliate, and WRBU St. Louis. With Ion putting its feed on WZRB in February, CW programming shifted to WKTC, which now runs The CW 8-10 p.m. and MyNetworkTV 10 p.m. to midnight. But wait—there’s more: The station also airs Telemundo, Antenna TV and Retro TV as multicasts.

Bob Neiman, WZRB general sales manager, notes it’s Ion’s first bricks-and-mortar operation in Columbia. There’s “a very slim possibility” WZRB may shoot for local ads, he says, which is not the Ion norm. “They’re feeling out the market to see which direction they want to go in,” Neiman says.

Capital Gains

Time Warner Cable is Columbia’s primary subscription TV operator. The market enjoys the prized three-legs-of-the-stool economic profile: state government, military and a massive university. While Columbia got multiple snowstorms this past winter— not to mention an earthquake on Valentine’s Day—it’s typically a favorable climate; Bailey calls it “an 11-month golf market.”

The college kids may be invisible to Nielsen, but they drop considerable cash around town, and the prominent University of South Carolina sports teams—the Gamecocks football squad finished No. 4 in the nation last season—give the market something to rally around. GM Bailey calls coach Steve Spurrier “a walking quote. He makes it too easy [for] our sports guys.”

WIS’ ratings in February were huge, thanks in part to NBC’s Winter Olympics coverage, but the Raycom station is strong every sweeps. WIS swept the key races in February and put up an 8.9 household rating/ 27.4 share at 11 p.m., ahead of WLTX’s 7.3/21.2. (WIS did a 7.7/23.6 last November.) WLTX is strong in adults 25-54, and O’Dell is undaunted by WIS’ might. “They’re not the juggernaut they used to be,” he says. “They still have the legacy, but when you break down the demos, there’s a pretty good story.”

Todd is not surprised to find a target on WIS’ back. “It’s tougher to be No. 1 for a long time than to be the challenger,” she says. “You have to be on your toes all the time because you know they’re coming after you.”

WHAT’S WORKING IN COLUMBIA: WLTX GOES LIVE AT 11…A.M.

Stations are constantly seeking to plug news into non-traditional slots, and WLTX is no exception. The Gannett station debuted its Saturday 11 a.m. news last Oct. 5. The program leads out of CBS This Morning and runs an hour. Clark Fouraker anchors, Daniel Bonds does the weather and Jasmine Styles reports. “It gives you a real good outlook for the rest of the day,” says Rich O’Dell, WLTX president and GM.

An enticing aspect of inserting news in a non-local slot is the lack of competition on the dial. Other Columbia stations are largely showing children’s programming or paid content in the time period, O’Dell notes.

News 19 Saturday Morning has been averaging about a 3 rating, tops for 11-noon, O’Dell says. “We thought there was an opportunity to put a newscast in a place that didn’t have anything like that,” he says. “We think we filled a void, and the response we get is, yes, you did.”