Warming Trend in Twin Cities

A slow uptick takes hold during brutal Minneapolis–St. Paul winter
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Twin Cities newsrooms are raptly watching the union fights going on over in the Wisconsin capital. While it’s unlikely a similar spat will occur in Minneapolis— Minnesota’s Democratic governor has the power to veto the Republican legislature—the Madison melee is nonetheless a closely followed local story for Minnesotans. “It’s a national story, but it’s a big story for us too,” says Susan Wenz, KSTC station manager. “Wisconsin is right across the river.”

Minnesota has its own issues aplenty, such as a budget deficit well into the billions. It appears Vikings quarterback Brett Favre’s retirement will stick this time, but the team wants a new stadium after the apocalyptic collapse of its roof late last year became a YouTube sensation.

Indeed, it’s been a brutal winter, even in a market known for them. The weather may be a shock to the system for Brien Kennedy, who took over as WCCO VP and general manager in the middle of last year after working in West Palm Beach, Fla. But the CBS owned station hasn’t missed a beat since Susan Adams Loyd stepped down as GM in June.

WCCO had a massive February sweeps, winning all the major categories in DMA No. 15, including 10 p.m. news with an 11.4 household rating/22 share, well ahead of Gannett NBC affiliate KARE’s 7.4/14. Thanks to a booming primetime, legacy status and improved political and investigative work, WCCO continues to roll. Kennedy is focused on keeping up WCCO’s trend of attracting younger viewers and working more “inspirational” stories into the news mix.

“We don’t do gimmicks,” says Kennedy. “We do a solid show that’s relevant to people who live here in Minnesota.”

Kennedy isn’t the only new face in a WCCO leadership position; former assistant news director Mike Caputa moved up to the top news job in late January, following Scott Libin’s departure. “I love his passion,” Kennedy says of Caputa. “He grew up here and has great market knowledge. He earned this opportunity.”

KARE lags in primetime, typical of NBC affiliates, but is a strong runner-up in early evening and late news. Hubbard Broadcasting owns ABC affiliate KSTP and independent KSTC. Fox holds KMSP and the MyNetwork- TV affiliate WFTC. CW affiliate WUCW is owned by Sinclair; the station has a new general manager in Philip Waterman, formerly of Tribune’s New Orleans stations.

Comcast is the dominant subscription-TV operator. The market is also home to WeatherNation, the TV weather syndication outfit launched by popular Twin Cities weatherman Paul Douglas following his layoff hree years ago as WCCO’s chief meteorologist.

The Twin Cities are home to a number of large corporations, including 3M, Best Buy and Cargill. The television business has been somewhat slow to recover from the recession, though automotive and telco ads are ticking upwards. “I don’t think the market is up as far as we thought it’d be—it looks like a smaller increase,” says KSTC’s Wenz. “We’re trying to be cautiously optimistic about the year.”

Hubbard is based in the Twin Cities, and the Hubbard clan is well entrenched in the community. The company made a splash in January when it agreed to acquire 17 radio stations from Bonneville International for a half-billion dollars. There are no Twin Cities stations in the bunch, though it does include outlets in Midwestern markets such as Chicago, St. Louis and Cincinnati. Even if synergies aren’t immediately evident for KSTP-KSTC, the best practices of the expanded group will be studied and shared.

“It’s a big deal,” says Wenz. “We’ll all be looking at their infrastructure and how they use the Web and social media. It adds to our knowledge of what state-of-the-art radio stations do.”

The Hubbard TV duo has increased its local output, with KSTC expanding its 9 p.m. news to an hour and adding a 9-9:30 p.m. newscast on weekend nights. Both additions started at the beginning of this year.

As has been the case in many markets, 4:30 a.m. has emerged as a hot battleground in the market. Fox’s KMSP was first on in April, its The Early Buzz a play off the station’s Morning Buzz branding. “It’s not your traditional format,” says Carol Rueppel, KMSP-WFTC VP and general manager. “It’s far more conversational.” WCCO followed in June, and its 1.4 household rating/12 share at 4:30 in February was just ahead of KSTP’s 1.3/11.

WCCO is preparing for life after Oprah; it will move Ellen into that prized 4 p.m. slot next fall, then debut Anderson in Ellen’s vacated 9 a.m. berth. KMSP has a new anchor in CNN alum Heidi Collins and is pushing more of a debate format into its newscasts. The station also tapped Nate Berkus’ mother to do promos for her son’s syndicated show. (Berkus grew up in the market.) “It has a nice local feel to it,” says Rueppel.

WCCO’s Kennedy, still a Twin Cities rookie, says both the talent level and viewers’ passion in Minneapolis–St. Paul surpass what he’s seen in some other markets. “The stations are very important to the people who live here,” Kennedy says. “The broadcasters here do good television and good journalism. I can’t say that about every market I’ve worked in.”

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

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