Market Eye: 'Badge' of Honor

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Madison, Wis., stations scored big in the first half of the year, when the debate over collective bargaining roiled the capital and spots representing all sides of the issue aired on local television.TV station executives here say it was essentially found money. "It was an unexpected bonus," says Bob Smith, regional VP of Gray Television and general manager at WMTV. "We weren't anticipating a big political year."

The tap was shut off months ago, but new political monies may start pouring in centered around the capital again. A movement is afoot to recall Gov. Scott Walker. Petitions are scheduled to go out Nov. 15; some 540,000 signatures will be needed to move the recall proceedings along.

TV ads may well figure into the politicking. "They have to get the word out some way," says Tom Bier, acting general manager at WISC. "They may have to build a case for why they want it to happen, and the other side builds a case why it shouldn't happen."

Such a lively political landscape makes for strong TV stations with steely dedication to covering the myriad local issues. Morgan Murphy’s CBS affiliate, WISC, has long been a power in DMA No. 85. But a major management change recently went down with the resignation of longtime general manager David Sanks and Bier taking over the day-to-day until a successor is named. Bier has spent almost 40 years at the station, most recently as station manager, and offers a steady hand amidst the transition.

"They have a lot of consistency over there," says WMTV’s Smith.

That consistency enabled WISC to put up its usual robust numbers in last May’s sweeps. WISC won totalday household ratings and primetime, along with the early evening and late news races—taking the latter with a 7 household rating/19 share. (NBC affiliate WMTV, which won the morning news race, and ABC outlet WKOW were virtually tied at 5/13.)

The revenue race in Madison has tightened. BIA/Kelsey had WISC on top in 2010 with an estimated $15.5 million, ahead of WMTV's $13.7 million. But an audit from Hungerford shows WMTV in the top revenue spot this year.

Charter is the major cable operator. Quincy Newspapers owns WKOW, Sinclair owns Fox affiliate WMSN and Acme has CW affiliate WBUW.

Bier credits family-owned Morgan Murphy for WISC's success, and an investment in local product that keeps talent from moving on to larger markets. "A lot of people come here and don't leave—department heads, staff, on-air," says Bier. "They know the community and understand what it's about. I think the community recognizes that."

Smith believes WMTV is top of mind when there is severe weather and breaking news. "Our brand is the weather authority, and we pound that pretty hard," he says. "We're usually first to break into programming for breaking news and weather."

WMTV also has an active social media strategy, with text alerts for breaking news, along with 6,700 Twitter followers and more than 20,000 Facebook fans—both tops among Madison stations. The station is part of the "Badger News Network," a news-sharing setup between it, Local TV's WITI Milwaukee and LIN's WLUK Green Bay. "It's politics, sports, whatever makes sense in their markets," says Smith.

The recent success of the local football and baseball teams is a far cry from how it used to be. "Being a Badgers-Packers-Brewers fan in the 1970s was dismal," says Smith. "We all look at each other now like, wow, it's been a good run."

Stations are doing all they can to pull ahead. WMTV and WISC added 4:30 a.m. news in October 2010, and WMTV just marked a year since it started its Sunday news at 6 a.m. instead of 7. WKOW, with its "We've Got You Covered" brand, grabbed a 2011 Columbia DuPont award-one of only five stations to do so-for its "Who's Protecting You?" investigative series on shortcomings in the state's consumer protection department.

WMSN, which airs 9 p.m. news, has added syndicated The Big Bang Theory to its air. WISC has Anderson in place of Oprah Winfrey at 4. WBUW puts a local spin on morning news on The Daily Buzz.

The local economy has not enjoyed the same run of success as the local sports teams. The new collective bargaining regulations have many workers paying more for health insurance, giving them less discretionary income. Some are still struggling to find work after GM closed a plant in nearby Janesville three years ago. It helps to have government and the giant state university as primary employers, but it's not been enough to stave off the economic chill. "In past recessions, people said Madison was recession-proof," says Bier. "This time around, everyone has been hurt."

But station managers suspect the worst is over in Madison. "People feel the ship is not tipping as much as it was," adds Bier. "There's a little more cautious optimism than pessimism...maybe."

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Michael Malone

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.