Battleground Zero

Columbus welcomes a tight presidential contest

As all eyes turn toward Ohio for the March 4 primary that may make the Democratic presidential race a whole lot clearer, station managers in Nielsen's No. 32 DMA are more than happy to host the proceedings. Columbus is smack dab in the middle of Ohio, and battleground state Ohio is smack dab in the middle of the presidential race, so the candidates are spending lavishly on local television.

“The pundits say Ohio will determine whether Hillary stays in the race,” says WBNS President/General Manager Tom Griesdorn. “Both Clinton and Obama recognize that, and they're spending like drunken sailors. Life is good.”

Columbus television took in $179.2 million in 2007, according to BIA Financial. That's expected to jump to $202.5 million this year, thanks not only to the Democratic hopefuls, but the general-election candidates later in the year in one of the nation's most hotly contested states. Dispatch Broadcast Group's WBNS led the pack in 2006, earning $60.6 million, per BIA, ahead of Media General's NBC outlet, WCMH, which took in $49 million. Also in the game are Sinclair's ABC-Fox duopoly, WSYX and WTTE, and LIN's CW affiliate WWHO. NBC Universal offloaded WCMH in a four-station, $600 million deal in 2006.

The market is dominated by The Ohio State University, with 52,500 students in Columbus. But station managers say campus life is but a part of the Columbus experience. Columbus is Ohio's capital and largest city, and the area is also home to major corporations like Nationwide Insurance, burger chain Wendy's and millennial clothing designer Abercrombie & Fitch.

WBNS is the big news player in Columbus. The CBS outlet won morning, evening and late news in November, as well as primetime and total day ratings. The latter is hardly a surprise for Griesdorn; he says WBNS has won total day for 26 straight sweeps. An even bigger honor is the station's Edward R. Murrow Award, which it took last summer for Best Newscast in the nation. WBNS switched on high-definition local programming last April, on the heels of the NCAA basketball Final Four; as luck would have it, Ohio State's Buckeyes made it all the way to the championship game.

Next month, WBNS parent Dispatch plans to connect its local broadcast, newspaper and cable properties via a common digital platform to share editorial, sales and marketing functions. Griesdorn says having Dispatch headquartered right in Columbus gives the station a major advantage. “Being locally owned makes all the difference in the world,” he says.

But WCMH is every bit as active in its pursuit of viewers. The station was the late-news runner-up in November, no minor accomplishment considering its fourth-place finish in prime, and WCMH went HD at the start of 2008. VP/General Manager Rick Rogala, who started in November after running KARK Little Rock, says WCMH will unveil an HD-friendly set this month, and will begin broadcasting from a downtown studio at Broad and High Streets in April. “It'll have a Today show feel,” he says. “It's a highly trafficked corner with advertising displays that are reminiscent of Times Square.”

Stations are putting their best foot forward as those presidential hopefuls and their camps take over Columbus. Says Griesdorn: “It's all about the election right now, and it's all very, very good.”

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