Not unlike beloved local boys Notre Dame facing off against rival Michigan, there's a fevered battle in the station race in South Bend. WNDU was the comfortable news leader for years, but WSBT pulled just ahead in revenue as recently as 2004, according to BIA Financial, before NDU reemerged as top earner. Formerly the property of the University of Notre Dame, WNDU was sold for $85 million to Gray Television in March 2006, and rivals say cost-cutting at the station has left the crown up for grabs.
“It used to be 'cost is no object' when Notre Dame owned the station,” says WSJV station manager Steve Morris.
The market grew some 10% in the past year in terms of homes, say station managers. People are drawn to the South Bend area because of jobs in health care and government, and the prestigious university with the famed golden dome. Plus, it's a pleasant place to live. “It's a nice community,” says WNDU VP/General Manager Matt Jaquint, who moved to the area two years ago. “People are very quick to accept you.”
Notre Dame's Fighting Irish football squad was a disappointing 3-9 this year, but finished with a pair of wins that got people thinking about 2008; in fact, the university's Website is counting the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the opener in September. WNDU shows the home games, and a losing record doesn't seem to crimp enthusiasm. “The town bleeds blue and gold,” says WSBT President/General Manager John Mann.
The South Bend-Elkhart market took in $47.4 million last year, with NBC affiliate WNDU leading the way with $18.8 million, according to BIA. Schurz's CBS outlet WSBT was runner-up with $14.8 million, and Fox outlet WSJV, owned by Quincy Newspapers, tallied $7 million. Weigel Broadcasting owns low-power ABC, CW and MyNetworkTV affiliates, and LeSea Broadcasting owns independent WHME.
Jaquint says the cost-cutting at WNDU has been “overstated,” and insists news coverage has been unaffected. (WNDU tied WSBT in evening news in the May sweeps, and won mornings handily. November numbers are not available until late December.) The station thrives on continuity; Jim Jeffers has been doing the sports since “Rudy” Ruettiger, subject of the '93 film Rudy, was a walk-on for the Irish in the mid-'70s. Maureen McFadden, who anchors with her brother Terry, has been at the station for 28 years.
The station offers the only Sunday morning news in the market, says Jaquint, and has a strong performer during weekday mornings in Live With Regis and Kelly, hosted by one of Notre Dame's most famous alums, Regis Philbin.
WSBT, which won primetime and late news, shifts to an 82,000-square-foot facility next summer that Mann calls “beyond state of the art.” The station is big on synergy; the “24/7” newsdesk serves, and is serviced by, not only the TV station but Quincy's radio properties and its South Bend Tribune newspaper. “It's really starting to pay off nicely,” says Mann of the year-old project.
The market gets a new news entrant Jan. 1, when Weigel's WBND introduces its 11-minute 11 at 11 nightly newscast.
With national advertising down, station executives are increasingly focusing on smaller advertisers right there in the DMA—many of which found themselves shut out when political ads dominated last year. Says WSJV's Morris: “Everybody's looking to give more attention to the local advertisers, which is great for the market.”