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Market Eye: Inventive Dayton, Redefined

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Invention is part of Dayton's DNA, say station executives here, dating back to the cash register being invented at a Dayton saloon in 1884, and the Wright brothers getting their famous airplane up in the air in 1903.

While the tech firm NCR, which hatched from that first cash register, left the market two years ago, the aeronautical industry still has a presence in the city. Wright-Patterson is a major Air Force base, and the market is big on drone research. A growing technology scene has lessened the sting of a decimated automotive landscape.

"It's not the manufacturing market of the ‘60s and ‘70s," says Dean Ditmer, general manager at WRGT-WKEF, and a native son.

Dayton gained three spots in Nielsen's DMA rank, though general managers say that's more about Nielsen redrawing its market borders than population growth. (In fact, BIA/Kelsey shows a .3% drop in population from 2005 to 2010.) While much of the market is redefining itself, WHIO remains a monster. Cox owns the station, which moved in with its corporate siblings in radio, newspaper and digital in December.

A CBS affiliate, WHIO had a huge May sweeps. Aided by local HD, the station's 8 household rating in sign on-sign off was miles ahead of WDTN's and WKEF's 2.9. It won all major news races, along with primetime; WHIO's 13.3 rating/23 share in late news was almost triple runner-up WDTN's 4.6/8.

Harry Delaney, Cox's senior VP of news and content in Dayton, retired at the end of 2010, with David Benallack, senior news and programming leader, overseeing the joint newsroom.

It can be a challenge to keep such a strong station running and gunning each day, but Benallack says WHIO considers all types of media, including digital content, to be competition. "WHIO never takes its position of strength for granted," he says. "There's a whole lot of fierce competition that's grabbing for viewers' attention."

Sinclair owns ABC affiliate WKEF, which manages Cunningham Broadcasting's WRGT, a Fox affiliate, through a local marketing agreement. LIN owns NBC outlet WDTN and CW-aligned WBDT; it acquired the latter from Acme in September after managing it through a services agreement. (LIN grabbed WBDT and WIWB Green Bay for a combined $11.5 million.) The main subscription TV operator in Dayton is Time Warner Cable.

WHIO grabbed $28.1 million last year, according to BIA/Kelsey, 44% of Dayton's $63.9 million local TV pot. WRGT was runner up at $11.53 million. Ohio being a key political battleground, Dayton station chiefs are looking forward to a hot 2012 season, which should actually start in the fourth quarter of 2011, thanks to some fiercely contested referendum issues.

Yet western Ohio's economic ills, which the nation sympathized with following the closing of a GM plant in Moraine, OH two days before Christmas in 2008, remain entrenched. Unemployment is above the national average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, and housing values continue to sputter. "I don't think anyone's throwing a parade about how great it is," says Ditmer. "It's better than it was, but the economy still presents a bit of a challenge for a lot of Ohio and this part of the country."

WRGT and WKEF, which are in different buildings, have a new news director in Wes Finley following Pat Casey's premature passing in March due to brain cancer. Ditmer credits Casey for building up the duo's news output from 12 hours a week to 38, and says Finley, formerly of WPMI Mobile, plans to take it further. "He's a high energy guy, a producer at heart," says Ditmer. "He's breaking down our shows and putting a fresh stamp on our product. He's leaning on our staff to produce as much new content as possible."

WHIO is trying out new content, too. The station debuts a 4:30 a.m. newscast August 15; WKEF is currently the only Dayton player in that slot. "We've had a lot of success in the past at 4:30 in situations where we had serious breaking news or developing weather," he says. "A lot of viewers tell us they like that, and we see in the ratings that they're up at that hour."

With such a deep bench of brainpower in its joint newsroom, WHIO will also air more special programming (see sidebar). The station is also using its digital platforms to expand its reach. October 1 marks the launch of WHIO's mobile DTV effort, and its subchannel airs weather, a 7 a.m. news and a variety of local sports, including minor league baseball. "There are fun and exciting times ahead for that," says Benallack.

Lisa Barhorst runs LIN's stations. WDTN is pushing an interactive strategy, emailing users alerts related to breaking news, weather, traffic and special offers. Users can contribute to the news output through WDTN's Report It platform.

Ditmer says local HD is "on the horizon" for WKEF-WRGT. But it's WHIO's title to lose, and the CBS affiliate has no intention of relinquishing its giant lead. "We realize we have to give viewers quality content," Benallack says, "every time they tune in."

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