Market Eye: Clear Winner Along the Big Muddy

KWQC is toast of the Quad Cities, but its rivals are innovating

KWQC’s news brand is unbeatable in the so-called Quad Cities straddling the Mississippi River in Iowa and Illinois, and the Media General powerhouse extends it by producing newscasts for Fox affiliate KLJB. But KLJB plans to take news in-house next Jan. 1. Marshall Porter, VP and general manager of CBS affiliate WHBF, which has a shared services agreement with KLJB, promises a “separate show” for the Fox station. “We’re pretty excited about what we can do with that,” he says.

That will likely mean news expansion—extending the current 9-9:30 p.m. newscast another half-hour, and debuting morning news on KLJB too.

But make no mistake—KWQC, with the tag line “Serving Illinois & Iowa”—is one of the great stations around the nation. The former Young Broadcasting outlet won the news races in the February sweeps, grabbed total-day household ratings handily, and took primetime—an impressive feat for an NBC affiliate. KWQC posted a 40 share at 6 a.m., a 33 share at 6 p.m. (and a 31 in adults 25-54) and an 11.2 household rating/29 share at 10 p.m., ahead of WQAD’s 7.9/20. The gap was wider in the key 25-54 demo; KWQC won February with a 6.6/29 and WQAD earned a 3.2/14.

KWQC thrives on a tenacious community presence; if there’s an event around Davenport, Iowa, or Rock Island or Moline, Ill., there’s a good chance KWQC is there supporting it. “It sounds corny, but KWQC always believes you can never be the best station in the community unless you’re the best station for the community,” says John Mann, general sales manager.

Ken Freedman is KWQC’s acting GM. Freedman moved to the top spot at WCMH Columbus at the beginning of the year; he continues to manage KWQC from Columbus while searching for his successor.

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Tribune’s WQAD, a former Local TV property, is a strong runner-up. Nexstar owns CBS affiliate WHBF and The CW-aligned KGCW, picking up the former as part of a multistation, $88-million deal in 2013 and the latter (along with KLJB) from Grant Co. that same year. The Grant deal took nearly a year to close, with Nexstar gaining the regulatory OK—and stoking minority ownership—by offloading KLJB to Pluria Marshall Jr. The three stations are in the same building. Mike Turner, KLJB director of sales, heads up the Fox outlet.

As is Nexstar’s way, the stations no longer subscribe to Nielsen, with Rentrak filling in some of the ratings gaps.

WHBF went through a dramatic rebranding. Like many Nexstar stations, it has embedded “Local” into its brand, unveiling “Local 4” in March, along with a new set, graphics, music and talent. “We overhauled news entirely,” says Porter.

The station also debuted a Sunday-morning political show. 4 the Record brings policy makers and shakers to the set for a vigorous Q&A. Porter says the star quality has been strong; guests have included Iowa Senator Joni Ernst and presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Porter calls Sanders’ appearance “exceptionally enjoyable.”

Mediacom is the market’s primary subscription TV operator.

Political dollars have been trickling in on the Iowa side, but the heavy spend is expected later this year and will be rampant through 2016. It also means more good guests for 4 the Record. “Iowa being the hotspot, you’ll see all the political candidates there,” says Porter.

The Davenport-Rock Island-Moline market was No. 99 a few years back, and it has since slipped to No. 100. Yet BIA/Kelsey has it as a strong No. 77 in terms of revenue, vastly outperforming its size. Kelsey reports KWQC pulling in roughly $23.1 million last year, WQAD $19 million, KLJB $8.6 million and WHBF $8 million; BIA/Kelsey’s figures are estimates.

A diverse economy, featuring the likes of military establishment Rock Island Arsenal and the corporate headquarters for agriculture giant Deere & Co. and Alcoa, keep business humming. Local TV executives speak of a “big little city” setting—a world-class arena drawing national acts, along with minor league baseball and plenty of cultural offerings, but the homey vibe of a smaller metro. “A long commute in this town is 12 minutes,” says Mann.

Davenport-based KWQC is intent on furthering its advantage, with news and weather apps keeping Quad Cities residents tuned in all day long. Mann speaks of the “commitment to really good journalism” at the station. “Quality content,” he adds, “always wins out.”

FOUR CITIES, ONE CHAMBER

KWQC has expanded into weekend-morning news with Saturday 6-7 a.m. and 9-10 a.m. programs, along with two more hours on Sunday. “We saw a demand for local news product,” says John Mann, general sales manager. “We filled that need.”

The station has a robust Facebook presence with 111,000 fans, well ahead of rival WQAD’s 74,000, with the Nexstar-operated pair miles behind. All the stations extend reach on their digital tiers. WQAD has Antenna TV and MyNetworkTV; KWQC offers local weather and Cozi TV; and WHBF-KLJB has This TV and Me-TV.

If you’re scoring at home, Bettendorf is the fourth city in the Quad Cities lineup. A series of chamber of commerce mergers has resulted in the unified Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce. Mann, former GM at WSBT South Bend (Ind.), calls the market a well-kept secret.

“There’s such a genuine sense of community, and it’s a wonderful place to grow in terms of the business environment. People come here and go, ‘Wow—why didn’t I know about this place before?” Mann says.