Market Eye: 'Fighting' Spirit

Drought causes ripple economic effect in central Illinois
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The United States has its heartland, and then there is the heartland's heartland. That's how residents of Champaign- Springfield-Decatur see their region, which stretches across the belly of Illinois: earnest, hard working, patriotic.

"People are really passionate about the community," says Rick Joseph, president and general manager at WAND. "It's real heart-of-the- Midwest-type people."

Each sub-market has a distinct profile. Champaign is the college town, home to the giant University of Illinois. Decatur is an agricultural base, and Springfield is, of course, the capital of Illinois.

With the new school year under way, all eyes are on the Fighting Illini football squad. Neighbor cities such as Chicago, St. Louis and Indianapolis have major pro and college sports franchises, but for Champaign-Decatur- Springfield, the local college team is everything. On Sept. 1, WAND debuted its pregame show, Inside the Illini Big Ten Football, which is shot at a local Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant.

"This is Illini country-there's a lot of buzz here," Joseph says. "Other Big Ten teams bleed in to the market, but there's really nothing else here-it's all orange-and-blue."

Several stations are clamoring for some pigskin action. Fox affiliate WRSP airs some SEC college football and Chicago Bears preseason games, while sister CW affiliate WBUI has ACC gridiron action and preseason St. Louis Rams games. "We've increased our sports presence on both sides," says Peter O'Brien, VP and general manager of WRSP-WBUI.

Based in Springfield, Sinclair ABC affiliate WICS is a power. The station led the market in 2011 revenue, according to BIA/Kelsey, its estimated $11.68 million ahead of Nexstar CBS affiliate WCIA's $10.93 million. Nexstar also owns MyNetworkTV affiliate WCIX; both are based in Springfield. GoCom owns Fox-CW combo WRSP and WBUI, also in Springfield, while Block Communications-owned WAND, an NBC affiliate, is in Decatur.

Comcast is the region's main subscription- TV operator. Around 85% of residents are white, according to BIA/Kelsey.

While much of the country was watching the Gulf Coast area get battered by Hurricane Isaac, DMA No. 82 has been keeping its fingers crossed for rain for several months. Isaac's aftermath did bring some welcome wet weather. "We got a lot of rain recently, but not enough to clear us from the drought conditions," says Coby Cooper, VP and general manager at WCIA-WCIX.

The market's varied profile-agriculture, education, government-helps the overall economic picture. While Champaign-Springfield- Decatur moved up to DMA No. 82 this year, from No. 84, it's stuck at No. 96 in terms of revenue, according to BIA/ Kelsey. More rainfall, and healthier agricultural output, will help the economic outlook. "People are just holding on and waiting-there's concern about the economy like everybody else," Joseph says. "The drought has had a real negative impact on the rural communities here."

Joseph started in the market Feb. 1. He previously ran KTRV Boise (Idaho).

Cooper came to Champaign two years ago, after running Nexstar's operation in Peoria, Ill. He is currently overseeing WCIA's move to complete its HD studio, including local news and commercials. The changeover is pegged for this fall. "We've got a new weather system, new set, new graphics," Cooper says. "We're right in the middle of it."

Stations are expanding their programming offerings. WICS produces a nightly 9 p.m. news for WRSP, while WBUI has "CMore Weather" updates every hour. The Fox station introduced Me-TV on its dot-two this fall, while the CW station has had This TV on its multicast tier for years.

"We're pleased with the response from advertisers and viewers," says O'Brien. "It's been a good move for us."

Every Friday in the summer, WCIA hits the road and produces its 4 p.m. lifestyle show, CI Living, as well as its 5 and 6 p.m. news from an outlying corner of the market (see sidebar). It's a chance for these sometimes remote regions to tell their unique stories.

After a successful Olympics, WAND, which airs HD local news, hopes to keep the samplers coming back. WANDTV.com has a lively stable of staff blogs, including ones dedicated to weather, film and sports. "We focus on the hyper-hyper-hyper local," says Joseph. "We're adding staff to expand our footprint in central Illinois."

WICS sticks with its ABC NewsChannel 20 branding, and features "Raw News"-"extra news footage, full interviews, and extended stories that didn`t make it on air"--on WICS.com. Tim Mathis, the general manager, did not return calls for updates on the Sinclair stations.

Market leaders are praying for rain, and a successful Illini football campaign. "It's a great Midwestern community," says O'Brien. "The strong work ethic and values make it fun to do business here." 

E-mail comments to mmalone@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @BCMikeMalone

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