First-Rate Year for Second City

Innovative O&Os compete in strong market
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Bolstered by a steady economy and a lucrative political season, network-owned stations in Chicago have been experimenting with new technology, original programming and newsgathering partnerships. ABC's WLS, usually a powerhouse, had a particularly good year; in November, it claimed all of the top 10 primetime programs in household ratings and was the clear-cut news leader.

Broadcasters in Nielsen's No. 3 market will close the year with an estimated $950 million in gross revenue, according to BIA Financial—an increase from $896.8 million in 2005, thanks largely to some $52 million in political-ad spending.

WLS strengthened its longtime lead in the local-people-meter market, pulling ahead of its closest competitor, NBC-owned WMAQ, in the tight late-news race by 39% in household ratings last month. The station posted a 10.3 rating/17 share in households versus WMAQ's 7.4/12. “Every newscast that we air wins,” says WLS President/General Manager Emily Barr. “It's been a concerted effort, but I really think we have the best news department in town.”

In January, WLS will start providing all of its local news in high-definition, and it is already the only station in town with an HD helicopter. “We had to rebuild our entire plant,” says Barr. “From an engineering perspective, it has been a tremendous amount of work.”

For its part, WMAQ has used the success of NBC's Sunday Night Football and a strong season for the Chicago Bears to launch a Sunday-night post-game comedy show, Sports Action Team. Featuring alums of local improv institution Second City, the program is “an unscripted spoof on [ESPN's] SportsCenter,” says WMAQ President/General Manager Larry Wert. It has been picked up in 30 other markets.

WMAQ also programs its own home-improvement show, House Smarts, starring local hardware-store owner and Today contributor Lou Manfredini. After proving itself on Monday mornings—and boosting home-improvement advertising along the way—the show will move to Saturday evenings in the new year. Changes to the station's early-morning news are also in the offing for early 2007.

Both WMAQ and CBS-owned WBBM have partnered with area newspapers to strengthen their news operations. This year, WMAQ cemented a partnership with the Chicago Sun-Times, sharing polls, reporters and even some exclusives. “We've had some really successful stories that we've broken and split between our reporters,” says Wert. (The station also has a partnership with NBC Universal corporate sibling WSNS, the local Telemundo station.)

WBBM has teamed with papers outside the city, including the Northwest Herald in McHenry County, the Naperville Sun in Illinois, and the Post Tribune in Indiana. “Our relationships with these newspapers have allowed us to get better coverage on local stories,” says WBBM President/Station Manager Joe Ahern. “People can really see our commitment to get the story, especially in community events.”

That commitment won WBBM this year's Associated Press Award for Outstanding News Operation, as well as an Emmy for spot news and an award for Outstanding Achievement for Station Excellence at the 2005-06 Chicago/Midwest Emmy Awards last month. Although the station's ratings are still small, Ahern sees the bright side: “We started this year for the first time in 23 years in second place.”

Chicago is a hyper-local news town. In fact, Tribune-owned WGN's Morning News, with a 3.3/12, outrated the Today show (2.3/8) in November. WGN and Fox-owned WFLD round out the market's English-language news staffs, each with noon and 9 p.m. newscasts.

Chicago's TV stations have entrenched themselves further on the Web this year, with streaming video, anchored traffic reports and mobile alerts. The results have been dramatic. “When I first came back to Chicago [in 2002], our Website was doing under 100,000 unique visitors a month,” says Ahern. “Last month, we had over 4 million.”

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