A re-awakening appears to be afoot in Milwaukee. Long seen as a sleepy Midwestern town with a love of suds and sports, the city is transforming. Health-care and financial-services companies have sprung up in place of manufacturers, the market has added around 40,000 new faces in the last five years, and station managers say there's even something of a scene going on downtown. The beloved Green Bay Packers of the NFL are off to a strong start, the perennially weak Brewers battled for first place until the end of the baseball season, and University of Wisconsin football looks strong as well.
“It's an interesting time to live in Milwaukee,” says Chuck Steinmetz, the Milwaukee-born-and-raised VP/General Manager of WITI. “We're known as an old beer town, but it's not like that anymore.”
Lest the city be seen as completely breaking from its brewing past, a grass-roots effort is underway to bring back old baseball mascot Bernie Brewer, and the long-vacant Pabst site—familiar to fans of Laverne & Shirley—is reopening as a mixed-use facility.
The No. 34 Nielsen market took in $160.1 million last year, according to BIA Financial, with a small dip projected for 2007. Journal Broadcast Group's NBC affiliate WTMJ led with $46.23 million, per BIA, ahead of Hearst-Argyle's ABC outlet WISN ($36.4 million) and Fox O&O WITI ($34.9 million). Weigel owns a low-rating CBS affiliate, WDJT, and Sinclair has a CW and MyNetworkTV duopoly.
WTMJ has worn the news crown for years. The station won late, evening and morning news in July, but the upstarts have chipped away at its share. Executive VP of TV and radio operations Steve Wexler says WTMJ's key is a laser focus on hyper-local news. “We've got in-depth insights into the big stories of the day,” says Wexler, who just moved back to the market, “and a core of strong, seasoned local news personalities.”
Like Fonzie, WTMJ may be a Milwaukee institution, but both the ABC and Fox outlets are creeping up. New WISN President/General Manager Jan Wade is optimistic about ABC's fall season, and is taking the fight online. Thanks to parent Hearst-Argyle's strong digital focus, the station launched a dedicated YouTube channel, shares content with CNN.com, and recently rebranded its Website from TheMilwaukeeChannel.com to WISN.com. “When you have a strong news brand, you want to take advantage of the work you've done on TV,” says Wade. “We felt there was a little bit of disconnect.”
WITI won prime in July, added TMZ on TV last month, and has 11 Packer games this season. The station is also building Web traffic through its new FoxHiLitesMilwaukee.com platform, which encourages area students to post sports video and commentary (see cover story, page 10).
Over at WDJT, there's the top-rated syndicated show in Wheel of Fortune, as well as a cheaper-gas finder called Pump Patrol, while the Sinclair duopoly is bullish on syndicated fare such as Two and a Half Men and Family Guy. Group manager David Ford acknowledges the challenge of starting two stations from scratch, but says both are on stable footing: “On The CW in particular, the new programming has gone over really well.”
The managers emphasize how important community service remains in Milwaukee. “We may not be a sleepy town anymore,” says WITI's Steinmetz, “but we still care about our neighbors.”
Next: Memphis, TN
Broadcasting & Cable Newsletter
The smarter way to stay on top of broadcasting and cable industry. Sign up below
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.