Market Eye: The Bucks Start Here

Home of Ohio State U. is epicenter for presidential election spending

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Every four years, the presidential hopefuls flock to Ohio like it's a holy land, and the Republican candidates’ habits in early March were consistent with this behavior. The money came in late, in advance of Super Tuesday, and it came in mightily. Station chiefs in Columbus appreciate the attention.

“It’s crazy,” says Tom Griesdorn, president and general manager at WBNS. “We came close to achieving what we anticipated, and it was all in about 10 days.”

It’s not like Columbus was dying for the cash. The market is home to Ohio State University, is the state capital and has a sanguine technology base too—a holy trinity that helps it hold up during economic droughts. Columbus moved up two spots to No. 32 in Nielsen’s newest market rankings—as big a jump as any top-40 market. “We weren’t hit quite as bad as other markets,” says Dan Bradley, president and general manager of WCMH. “We weather the storm generally better than the rest of the state.”

WBNS is a ratings monster. The Dispatch Broadcast station won every major ratings race in the February sweeps, including 11 p.m. news with an 8.2 household rating/16 share, ahead of WCMH’s 5.7/11. Griesdorn lists a litany of reasons why WBNS succeeds, including local ownership, a sister cable channel in ONN, a CBS affiliation and a deeply tenured staff. He also notes that Elbert Tucker, who came from WKRC Cincinnati to be news director in fall 2010, has been “a breath of fresh air” for the newsroom. (Tucker succeeded John Cardenas, who took over Dispatch sister WTHR Indianapolis.)

The WBNS strategy is super-simple: strong breaking news and a near-constant stream of updates. “Everybody buys into our strategy,” says Griesdorn. “Everyone is committed to it.”

Yet the competition sees opportunity to make up the difference. Andrea Cambern, a popular 20-year veteran of WBNS, is departing in May. WBNS lost Oprah Winfrey as well. Bradley says that has enabled Media General’s WCMH to take a bite out of early evenings, with Ellen setting the stage at 4 p.m. “She’s nipping at Dr. Oz’s backside,” Bradley says, painting a descriptive picture. “We’ve improved our 5 p.m. performance, and we’re the only ones to show early-evening newscast growth in the market.” (WCMH in February gained 2 household share points from 5-6 p.m., and 1 point from 6-6:30.)

Another rival is upping its game, too. Sinclair Broadcast Group owns ABC affiliate WSYX and manages Cunningham Broadcasting’s Fox af! liate, WTTE. LIN Media sold CW outlet WWHO to Manhan Media in February, and Sinclair promptly inked a shared services agreement for WWHO. Dan Mellon, GM of WSYX-WTTE, and Manhan execs did not return calls for comment.

Columbus’ major subscription TV operator is Time Warner Cable, followed by u-Verse.

WCMH is seeing some sparks in primetime, including The Voice, of course, and Smash. Bradley is optimistic about the new network ownership. “The NBC-Comcast folks struggled out of the gate, but I’m much more pleased with the effort they put in than the previous efforts from the previous owners,” he says. “Hope springs eternal.”

Local stations are pushing on all platforms. WBNS shows Doppler 10 radar on its dot-two channel. WCMH airs Me-TV on its multicast tier, and has Katie Couric’s daytime debutante on board for September. “I think we’re putting ourselves in a good position for fall,” says Bradley. “We should be much more of a challenge against the Dispatch station.”

With November on the horizon, Columbus stations are gearing up for a political advertising onslaught. “We feel very strong about 2012,” says Griesdorn. “If there’s a bullseye on Ohio, it’ll be a great year.”

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Putting Bucks in The Buckeye State

The Obama and Romney camps, and the Super PACs, have decided that Ohio—perhaps more than any state—holds the key to the White House, and they are spending big to seize it