Chicago Bullish on Local Content

In Chicago, a sizable contingent of local TV outlets feed the market’s seemingly insatiable appetite for local information. With a hot gubernatorial race this fall, that demand shows no signs of slowing down.

The country’s No. 3 media market boasts at least a half-dozen local morning news shows that start as early as 4 a.m. In the afternoon, newscasts begin at 4 p.m. Along with the four major network affiliates, Chicago is home to several independent TV outlets — including Tribune Media-owned WGN and its regional cable news channel, CLTV, and Weigel Broadcasting’s WCIU — that also offer news.

Station executives say there is ample audience for all of this content. “It’s all about weather, politics and the headline story of the day here,” said David Doebler, president and GM at NBC’s WMAQ and Telemundo’s WSNS. “At 6 a.m., when people are starting their day, and at 10 p.m., when they’re winding down, [those] are the most competitive time periods.”

Comcast is the dominant cable operator in the region with its Xfinity service. The MSO recently rebranded its regional sports channel as NBC Sports Chicago to reflect ties to NBC Sports: it shows Cubs, Bulls, White Sox and Blackhawks games. Tribune’s local cable news channel, CLTV, is available to Xfinity subscribers and to RCN’s cable system.

WLS On Top

ABC O&O WLS-TV is the longtime market leader. The station credits consistency for helping maintain its dominance. “We’ve had a terrific bench and that’s why we’ve had so much success over the years,” noted WLS president and GM John Idler.

In the November 2017 sweeps, WLS handily won the 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. races in the adults 25-54 demographic, per Nielsen. To recruit additional viewers, WLS produces a 7 p.m. newscast for independent WCIU. “If we get on another platform and another channel at a time when there isn’t another newscast,” Idler said, “it is great for our brand.”

WSNS recently added an 11 a.m. newscast and four-minute cut-ins to Telemundo’s morning show. It and WMAQ share newsroom resources and sales efforts. With Hispanics representing 29% of the market, per the U.S. Census Bureau, having both English- and Spanish-language capabilities “is a big differentiator for us,” Doebler noted.

The most contested daypart may be early mornings. In the November book, while WLS was tops in the 5 a.m. hour, WGN defeated WLS at 6 a.m. by one-tenth of a ratings point.

A former The CW affiliate, WGN went independent in 2016. It offers 70.5 hours of news per week, including its most recent expansion at 6 p.m. Along with new sets and graphics, the station is now live with local news from 4 a.m.-10 a.m., where it mixes daily news with lighter fare. “We get the news right first and have fun after,” said news director Jennifer Lyons, who was named B&C News Director of the Year in 2017. The station recently hired KGW Portland veteran Joe Donlon to anchor its 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. hours.

Immigration and the gubernatorial race, and weather events, particularly snowstorms and tornadoes, are the big stories.

CBS O&O WBBM recently unveiled a revamped set and has the market’s only all-female morning team, Marissa Bailey and Erin Kennedy. Fox-owned WFLD offers 40 hours of local news per week. (Fox also owns CW affiliate WPWR.)

Politics Drives a Healthy Ad Forecast

Thanks to political activity, the local ad market is expected to be robust. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner is being challenged by several candidates, including two well-funded Democrats, J.B. Pritzker and Chris Kennedy. Stations expect to see heavy political ad spending from both the primary races and general election. “The race for governor in Illinois could wind up being the most expensive gubernatorial election in history,” WBBM president and GM Marty Wilke said.

According to BIA/Kelsey, total advertising spending on all media in the market will reach $5.17 billion this year, up from $4.91 billion last year. In 2018, local TV is expected to account for 15.6% of local ad dollars, while online grabs about twice as much, BIA/Kelsey reported.

Overall, the forecast for the Windy City looks upbeat. “The economy is strong,” Wilke said, “and it’s still a great market for local broadcasters.”