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Market Eye: Gone With the Wind

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There’s an abundance of new leadership in Chicago television, which will likely usher in fresh strategies and looks for the stations. In mid-September, CBS announced that Bruno Cohen, president/general manager of WBBM, was taking over sister station KPIX San Francisco. Taking Cohen’s place at WBBM is Marty Wilke, who departed the top spot at WGN Chicago.

Back in June, John Idler shifted from ABC-owned WTVD Raleigh (N.C.) to the GM job at ABC’s WLS Chicago, following Emily Barr’s departure to run the Post-Newsweek station group.

Chicago TV veterans say they can’t recall this amount of GM turnover since Barr and WMAQ president/GM Larry Wert arrived some 15 years ago.

Wilke says she was pleased to see a lot of familiar faces while touring WBBM. “Chicago is a really big small town,” she says. “I look forward to getting in and working with Bruno’s team.”

Idler’s ascendancy to WLS president/GM represents his third tour at the station. He’s unimpressed by the management churn in the market. “The only one I’m concerned with is the one at WLS,” Idler says.

WLS is one of the most prominent stations in the country. The station once again ruled the May sweeps, winning all the major races, including the 10 p.m. news with an 8.5 household rating/15 share, ahead of WMAQ’s 5.6/10, and beating WMAQ in adults 25-54 by a point.

Idler says the key to WLS’ perennial success is dedicated staffers with unsurpassed knowledge of DMA No. 3, along with tireless community service. “It really is the people,” Idler says. “They know Chicago like nobody else.”

Comcast-NBCUniversal owns WMAQ and Telemundo station WSNS. Comcast also is the market’s main subscription TV operator. Tribune owns WGN, a CW affiliate. Steve Farber, VP of programming operations at Tribune Broadcasting, is acting GM. Fox owns WFLD and MyNetworkTV outlet WPWR. Weigel holds the independent WCIU, while Univision has WGBO-WXFT.

Comcast has been investing mightily in WMAQ, evident in a massive 21-by-7-foot wall monitor unveiled on the set over Labor Day weekend, adding a wow factor to breaking news or weather. The station has an expanded investigative reporting unit and recently relaunched noon and weekend-morning newscasts after they had been scrapped during the recession. Rookie syndicated show Steve Harvey is shot at WMAQ’s HD studios. And the station is featuring more dual-anchor broadcasts than in the pre-Comcast, cost-cutting days. “Adding fast-paced content works better with a dual anchor team,” says Wert.

While he acknowledges that ratings performance is based on a number of elements, Wert suggests WMAQ’s ratings are on the rise. “I think we’re reaping the rewards of investments we’ve made,” he says. “I think we’re well under way.”

WBBM also has expanded on weekends, plugging in Saturday 8 a.m. and Sunday 7 a.m. newscasts on Sept. 22-23. Cohen speaks of an invigorated newsroom. “We’re not there yet, but Marty comes in with a lot of momentum,” he says.

The Fox-owned stations have Ricki Lake and Dish Nation, along with Chicago Bears pre- and regularseason games and a big local radio voice in a new role this fall. Controversial host “Mancow” Muller will be the star of a 6-8 a.m. simulcast on WPWR. “He’s an interesting and dynamic character,” says Mike Renda, WPWR VP/GM. “He’s something else, and what we’re trying to do is capture that.”

Fox, NBC, CBS and Tribune are involved in a content share known as LNS, short for Local News Service. While NBC has pulled out of similar arrangements in markets including Philadelphia and Los Angeles, a station rep says it is status quo in Chicago. WLS’ Idler, for his part, shares his predecessor Barr’s view on content pooling. “We have no interest at all,” he says.

The local economic picture is fairly bleak. President Obama, who of course came of age politically in the market, has Illinois sewn up in the presidential election, though a handful of Congressional races will kick some funds to station coffers. “I think we’ll see a lot of activity between now and Election Day,” says Renda.

Political spending aside, Idler speaks of a “general malaise” among Chicagoans amidst economic uncertainty. “We’re starting to see some good signs,” he says, “but the marketplace always could be better.”

The stations are optimistic that new seasons for the networks will spark some hits. WMAQ is pushing hard on Comcast CEO Steve Burke’s “Project Symphony” philosophy, which sees all tentacles of the prodigious Comcast-NBCUniversal empire abetting each other’s initiatives. “It’s pretty powerful to put your message across so many entities and platforms,” Wert says, “without getting a bill.”

The newsrooms of course had the public school teachers’ strike to cover in September—a Chicago story that went national. “Chicago is a great news town,” says Renda. “There’s always a lot of news going on. There’s always some drama.”

Adds the departed Cohen: “It’s a tough town to leave.”

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Michael Malone
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.