Local News Close-Up: Columbus Offers Cosmopolitan Vibe in Heartland
Ratings race up for grabs in Ohio capital
For decades, WBNS was the ratings colossus in Columbus. The station shifted from Dispatch Broadcast Group to Tegna in 2019, in a $535 million deal for it and WTHR Indianapolis, and the ratings race in Ohio’s capital has tightened.
“The marketplace has never been more competitive,” John Cardenas, WBNS VP and general manager, said. “Three stations, on any given day, compete for first and second place.”
WBNS appears to be changing hands again with Standard General’s acquisition of Tegna in process.
Nexstar Media Group owns NBC affiliate WCMH in DMA No. 32. Sinclair Broadcast Group has WSYX, which airs both Fox and ABC. Sinclair also manages Cunningham-owned WTTE and Manhan Media-owned WWHO, giving the group extraordinary reach in Columbus, including The CW, MyNetworkTV, Antenna TV and action-themed Charge!
Charter Communications’s Spectrum is Columbus’s primary subscription TV operator.
For 2022, according to Nielsen, WSYX had the top score in impressions at 6 a.m., in both households and viewers 25-64 (25-54 ratings were not available). WSYX was tops in 5 p.m. households, with WCMH edging out WBNS in 25-64. WSYX won 6 p.m. households, with WCMH again scoring a very narrow win over WBNS in 25-64. WBNS won 11 p.m. households, in impressions, and WCMH won 25-64.
In the November Comscore race, WSYX won households and 25-54 at 6 a.m. WSYX won 6 p.m. in both races and WBNS took 11 p.m. in both races.
Industry watchers in the market said WBNS was the default station viewers reflexively turned to, but the game is wide open now.
WBNS, known as 10TV, introduced mobile product 10TV Plus (opens in new tab) in the fall, and aims to feature original programming on the platform. “We’re highly focused on creating new content, including historical,” Cardenas said, mentioning the “vault” of vintage local programming that documents Columbus’s history.
WBNS has Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune in the 7 p.m. hour.
Cardenas was the WBNS news director from 1999 to 2010 and took over as GM in 2013. With users getting news all day from a range of mobile sources, he said enterprise reporting will make 10TV stand out. “Enterprise or breaking stories, not the news of the day that everyone covers,” he said. “It’s always been a 10TV mantra but it’s more important now than ever. The only way to truly differentiate yourself is with true enterprise reporting.”
WSYX is a power in morning news. With ABC on channel 6.1 and Fox on 6.3, the ABC station is live 4:30 to 7 a.m., while the Fox affiliate is live 6:30 to 10 a.m. “We’re clearly the market leader in a.m. news,” Tony D’Angelo, VP and general manager, said. “No debate.”
D’Angelo’s father Gene ran WBNS from 1972 to 1993, and Tony noted how there’s been a D’Angelo in Columbus broadcast since the mid-’50s.
WSYX news director Jamie Justice was bumped up to Sinclair group news director last year, with Nicole Hogensen taking over the newsroom after a run at WPTV-WFLX West Palm Beach, Florida.
D’Angelo boasted of “the largest news staff in the marketplace, and more news programming than any of our competitors.” He also mentioned “very little turnover on the air.”
WCMH, with a Local 4 You brand, goes live at 4 a.m. on weekdays and has news 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. NBC4 expanded its 4 p.m. news to an hour during the pandemic.
“We look for the opportunity to be on when maybe our competitors are not,” said Ken Freedman, WCMH VP/general manager. “We’re consistently looking for ways to increase the amount of content we think our community wants.”
College Town Pride
Ohio State, or The Ohio State University, as Columbus residents like to put it, drives the market in a number of ways. The university is a giant source of local pride, and its Buckeyes are a beloved football team. “We don’t have a pro football team, but one could argue that the Buckeyes are our professional football team,” Freedman said. “People root for the Bengals and the Browns, but the first love in the city is the Buckeyes.”
Residents are slowly recovering from a 42-41 Buckeye loss to No. 1 Georgia on New Year’s Eve, and a rough loss to rival Michigan in late November — almost exactly a year after another heavy loss to Michigan. “We can’t lose to Michigan three times in a row,” said Cardenas.
Affiliated with both Fox and ABC, WSYX gets the lion’s share of Buckeye games, and has the Football Fever pre- and post-game shows. “Ohio State is part of our DNA here,” D’Angelo said.
WBNS, for its part, has the coach’s shows for Ohio State football and basketball.
WBNS stopped receiving Nielsen ratings seven years ago, Cardenas saying the return on investment for the station just was not there. The station deploys a DE&I community board to better help connect with diverse communities.
Cardenas said the Standard General acquisition has not been a distraction for staffers. “It’s a legacy station with a gold standard of excellence,” he said. “We don’t expect that to change at all, regardless of ownership.”
DMA No. 32 is home base for Wendy’s, Victoria’s Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch and Nationwide Insurance. Intel is building a $20 million semiconductor chip plant in Columbus, the Ohio capital. Ohio’s population grew 3% from 2000 to 2020, but if one takes Columbus out of the equation, the state population went down 1%.
Residents may not like the “Ohio gray” that is winter in Columbus, but they dig the mix of cosmopolitan vibe and Midwestern mindset, and easy access to other major cities. Freedman noted a “wonderful quality of life at a very reasonable cost.”
Columbus may be market No. 32, but it’s the 14th-largest U.S. city. Many larger TV markets are hyphenated ones, such as Cleveland-Akron and Tampa-St. Petersburg.
With his multiple decades in Columbus, Cardenas has seen the market take off. Yet some things stay the same. “Despite the exponential growth,” he said, “it still feels very much like a small town.” ■
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Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.