Market Eye: Nobody Beats the WIS

The wheel deal in South Carolina’s capital
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Columbia, S.C., is increasingly where the metaphorical, and literal, rubber meets the road. Tire conglomerate Michelin, its headquarters two hours to the northwest in Greenville, has a manufacturing facility in the market. Tire and rubber giants Bridgestone and Continental Tire are setting up operations in the state’s Midlands region as well.

“We’re becoming the tire capital of the country,” says Rich O’Dell, WLTX president and general manager.

Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, is growing. The market crept up to No. 77 in the most recent Nielsen DMA rankings, from its previous perch at 78. O’Dell says Columbia was No. 86 when he arrived in 1999.

Raycom’s WIS is growing too. The NBC affiliate won total day household ratings in last May’s sweeps, along with morning, early evening and late news. WIS posted a mammoth 45.9 household share at 6 a.m. Late news is closer: WIS showed a 9.4 rating/28.9 share at 11, ahead of WLTX’s 5.8/17.9. Gannett’s WLTX, a CBS affiliate, won primetime— just ahead of ABC affiliate WOLO.

Winning never gets old for WIS. “I’m happy to see continued growth,” says Donita Todd, vice president and general manager. “It’s nice to win, but it’s also nice to see year-over-year growth.”

WIS’s $21.9 million in 2010 revenue topped WLTX’s $16 million, according to BIA/Kelsey.

Bahakel Communications holds WOLO, Barrington Broadcasting has Fox outlet WACH, Roberts Broadcasting owns CW affiliate WZRB and WBHQ Columbia owns MyNetworkTV station WKTC. WACH is currently without a general manager and did not return calls for comment. Roberts Broadcasting filed for bankruptcy in October; calls to its St. Louis headquarters were not returned.

Time Warner Cable is the primary subscription television operator in the market; it is seeing real competition from AT&T’s u-Verse service.

WIS thrives on exhaustive viewer research, along with personality-driven news talent and a legacy reputation. “A lot is expected of us—more than just reporting the facts,” Todd says. “It’s how it impacts you and your life.”

Rashida Jones, former Weather Channel live programming director (no relation to the Parks & Recreation cast member of the same name), started as WIS news director in August. WIS added a 4:30 a.m. news last fall (it’s the only Columbia station live in that slot, says Todd) and features Bounce TV and This TV on its subchannels.

WLTX, with its “On Your Side” branding, is hardly sitting idle; the station gained three percentage points in revenue last year, reports BIA/Kelsey. WLTX has introduced Gannett’s daily deals platform, Deal Chicken, and debuted local HD in January. The newsroom is pushing an aggressive social media strategy, which has sparked 55,000 downloads of the WLTX weather app. “All news is broken on Twitter,” O’Dell says. “It’s an exciting time to be in the business.”

The station is running its annual holiday-season Stuff-a- Bus campaign, which sees city buses parked in Wal-Mart lots jammed full of donated food and gifts for the needy.

WOLO added 6 a.m. and noon news in July, a decade after scrapping the programs. “Rather than just having 6 and 11 [p.m.] news, we want to be more of a full-service news station,” says Chris Bailey, VP/general manager of WOLO.

WACH keeps viewers, and users, connected with an array of Webcams around the market, such as at the State House and in the WACH studio. WKTC sometimes airs college football and basketball when there’s a scheduling conflict on WOLO.

Columbia stations have shaken up their syndication offerings. WLTX has Dr. Oz at 4 p.m. WOLO grabbed Dr. Phil from WIS. WIS has a 4 p.m. newscast in place of the departed Oprah Winfrey, with Raycom’s America Now leading in.

Unemployment is persistent, but the Columbia market is holding up well thanks to a stable and diverse base of employers. Columbia prides itself on what’s known locally as the three-legged stool, involving the military, state government and the University of South Carolina. Military bases include Fort Jackson and Shaw Air Force Base. The university, which has more than 44,000 students, repeated as NCAA Division I baseball champions in June. Amazon.com is moving into the market and will employ some 2,000 people at a new distribution center.

“There’s really been a lot of good news in terms of jobs being added to the market,” says WOLO’s Bailey. “That means active, happy consumers, and it really helps the television market.”

South Carolina will hold its presidential primary on Jan. 21, following the bellwether polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. Going third gives the Republican-leaning state considerable significance for the political aspirants. “A lot of politicians—guys and ladies—have been coming through the area,” says O’Dell.

BIA/Kelsey has projected 1.3% population growth for Columbia from 2010-2015. Local sation general managers offer a host of reasons why it’s expanding the way it is. Upon her arrival in 2008, Todd was enthused to see the abundance of cultural offerings, including ballet and a symphony. “Coming from larger markets, I was pleasantly surprised to see the amount of arts this town supports,” she says. “Plus, it’s a wonderful outdoors area.”

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

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