Market Eye: Capital Sins

Political gaffes keep Columbia hopping
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With an increasingly lively nightlife, Columbia, S.C., has rebranded itself to play up its “cool” factor. If only the state's elected politicians showed the same coolness. Between Gov. Mark Sanford's tryst with an Argentine paramour and Rep. Joe Wilson shouting “You lie!” during President Obama's presentation on health-care reform, stations in the state capital have major national stories to report.

WLTX employed textbook corporate synergy when the CBS station and its Gannett siblings WXIA Atlanta and USA Today got Wilson and his wife to sit for an eight-minute interview. “We just let Joe talk,” says WLTX President/General Manager Rich O'Dell. “It shows how neat it can be when we all work together.”

Columbia has long been dominated by Raycom's NBC affiliate WIS, but the gap has narrowed. WIS still grabs 41% of the revenue in DMA No. 79, according to BIA Financial, but that's down from the 47% it booked as recently as 2006, with WLTX and Bahakel's ABC outlet WOLO boosting their take. Other local players include Barrington's Fox affiliate WACH; Roberts' CW affiliate WZRB; and MyNetworkTV outlet WKTC, owned by WBHQ Columbia LLC.

Benefiting from Raycom's strong news presence throughout the Carolinas, WIS won total day household ratings in May, along with morning, evening and late news—the latter with a 10.4 rating/29.7 share, better than WLTX's 8.7/24.7. (Prime winner WLTX won late news among adults 25-54.) WIS VP/General Manager Donita Todd replaced the retiring Mel Stebbins in February 2008. She's forging ahead with the station's multi-platform approach, reporting 5.5 million page views on WISTV.com in August. “People want to go straight to the Web to see what's going on,” she says. “We want to be the place they go to.”

The economy has held up fairly well, thanks to a diverse portfolio that includes the relatively recession-resistant University of South Carolina, government, and military bases such as Fort Jackson. “Military is a huge economic driver,” O'Dell says.

Stations are trying new things for fall. WLTX has Dr. Oz, WIS is pushing its “10 to Go!” mobile product, and WACH debuts a 7:30 p.m. news Sept. 28. “It'll be fast and cutting-edge,” says President/CEO Scott McBride. “I think it's what Fox viewers want.”

WOLO was the first to launch local HD programming Sept. 21. “That may not be exciting news in markets 10 or 25,” says VP/General Manager Chris Bailey, “but it's pretty big news around here.”

With the new slogan “Famously Hot—Surprisingly Cool,” Columbia is a launching pad to the mountains and the beach; a midpoint between Orlando and Washington, D.C.; and a smallish city with a cosmopolitan vibe. “Columbia's got such a vibrant nightlife and a lot of culture,” Todd says. “It's great to see, for a town this size.”

E-mail comments tomichael.malone@reedbusiness.com

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