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All Eyes on Des Moines

Iowa is, of course, the first state to weigh in on the presidential candidates, and it’s a role its residents hold in high regard. As the leading Democratic hopefuls, including Joseph Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders, traipsed around the state ahead of the Feb. 3 party caucuses, the stations in the Iowa capital were there to cover them. And when caucus confusion enveloped the market the next day, the Des Moines stations were all over it.

KCCI has the specials series Commitment 2020: The Undecideds. The station has done six specials under this title, each one featuring one of the Democratic candidates facing questions from the people of Iowa. “We want to get at the issues that matter to real Iowans,” said Brian Sather, KCCI president and general manager.

Dave Price is WHO’s political director, and hosts Sunday morning program The Insiders. “We’ve put a tremendous amount of resources behind political,” said Bobby Totsch, WHO VP and general manager.

Hearst TV owns KCCI, a CBS affiliate. That station is in a tight ratings race with Nexstar Media Group’s NBC-aligned WHO. “We win households and total viewers, and it’s clearly a competitive market in demos,” Sather said. “It’s a two-horse race and you have to bring your A game every day.”

More Local News: WHO to Launch 'Hello Iowa' in September

Other horses in Des Moines-Ames are Tegna’s ABC affiliate WOI and Sinclair Broadcast Group’s Fox outlet KDSM. Tegna also owns CW affiliate KCWI. MyNetwork-TV runs along with H&I (Heroes & Icons) on a KCCI subchannel. Mediacom is the primary subscription TV operator in DMA No. 68.

Nexstar picked up WHO in its Tribune Media acquisition. Totsch took over as VP/general manager in Des Moines in late September. He said Nexstar is investing, including a “state-of-the-art set” that blows away the antiquated one, in Totsch’s words, that WHO used to have.

WHO moved its weekday news up a half hour to 4:30 a.m. in November, and will debut a lifestyle show in September. “We have the most local programming by far of any station in the market,” said Totsch, whose previous posts included general manager at WPMI Mobile and at KCTV Kansas City.

Steve Rohrer is the VP/general manager of KDSM. WHO produces the 9 p.m. nightly news for the Fox affiliate. KDSM’s diginets include Sinclair-owned Stadium, Charge! and TBD. As Sather suggested, the ratings race is between two horses. For 2019 through November, KCCI won the household race at 6 a.m. and KCCI and WHO split the 25-54 contest. At 5 and 6 p.m., KCCI won households and 25-54. At 10 p.m., KCCI did a 10.6 in households, ahead of WHO’s 7.1. WHO got a 4.0 in viewers 25-54, ahead of KCCI’s 3.2.

KCCI won prime households easily in 2019, while the 25-54 race was much closer.

Totsch called Des Moines “a bit of an old-school type Midwestern market,” where people still watch lots of local TV and listen to local radio. (Nexstar sold news radio station WHO.) He described the city as clean and family friendly. “A secret gem, I think,” Totsch added.

The market quieted down once the caucus results, delayed by a software issue, were finally revealed. But in a growth market, things keep humming. People in Des Moines quip that the official bird of the city is the crane. “There are a lot of them,” Sather said. “There’s a lot of growth.”