Anyone needing proof that the Madison, Wis., TV market plays well above its size should note this: Aereo plans to offer its service in the market in the coming months—DMA No. 83 easily being the smallest market where the controversial online TV operation is setting up. That’s a nod to the savvy populace there, many connected to the University of Wisconsin.
Need more confirmation? Madison, which moved up two slots in the most recent Nielsen market rankings, comes in at a mighty impressive No. 67 in terms of revenue, according to BIA/Kelsey.
Besides some hale TV outlets, Madison is home to digital media outfit Broadcast Interactive Media (BIM) and meteorological content producer Weather Central. The beloved satirical newspaper The Onion was founded in Madison in 1988 and cracked wise there before relocating to New York in 2001. Its series, Onion News Network, ran for two seasons on IFC.
“It’s an interesting market from that standpoint, in that a number of media players have been based here,” says Tom Bier, WISC VP/GM. Bier has been at WISC for close to 40 years, most as news director.
Don Vesely moved into the top spot at WMTV in July after a run as general sales manager. “It’s nice to be able to do it with the station you started with,” he says. “I absolutely love having the ability to take the visions I have and make it happen.”
That includes what Vesely calls “cosmetic changes” to the news operation, which cranks out 32 hours of local news per week. “It’s related to the look of our station, not the people,” says Vesely.
Morgan Murphy Media owns CBS affiliate WISC, which airs MyNetworkTV on its dot-two channel, and owns Madison magazine too. Gray Television has NBC affiliate WMTV. Quincy Newspapers holds local ABC outlet WKOW and Sinclair Broadcast Group has Fox affiliate WMSN. WBUW, aligned with The CW, went to Byrne Acquisition Group for $1.8 million late in 2011. The station underwent a much-needed equipment overhaul, and president John Byrne is adding community-oriented shows. “Hyper-local programming is the model we’re in the middle of implementing,” he says. “That’s critical to our success.”
WISC produces the 9 p.m. news for WMSN, having taken over the task from WKOW in 2012. Madison’s main subscription TV operator is Charter, and ATT’s u-Verse has been growing its presence.
The market is awaiting February sweeps results, which will show big-time Olympics viewing for WMTV. WISC won most of the key races in November; it put up a 7.4 household rating/22.3 share at 10 p.m., ahead of WMTV’s 4/12.1. WMTV won mornings.
The DMA’s strong revenue figures are a holdover from previous years, when stations ran scores of ads related to Gov. Scott Walker’s recall election. Business is more down to earth now, although Madison stations enjoy two key market perks: they’re in a state capital and a city with a giant state university.
One blow to the market is the demise of the regional appliance and furniture chain American TV, which is running going out of business sale ads. Bier calls American TV a top-five local advertiser.
The health information firm Epic is a giant local employer with roots in Madison; it is growing rapidly with more hospitals putting their records online. Timur Yarnall, BIM founder, chose Madison for company headquarters because it’s home to an elite computer science program, cost of living was reasonable and mojo was on the upswing. “I shopped around, and Austin and Boulder were already discovered,” says Yarnall, who also has based his security analytics startup, MdotLabs, in Madison. “Madison was not yet discovered.”
The market offers both metropolitan amenities and proximity to major metropolitan advantages. “If you need big cities, they’re right here,” says Larry Forsgren, WMSN GM, mentioning Milwaukee and Chicago. “But we have just about everything in Madison.”
March temperatures in Madison fluctuated dramatically, between spring-like 50s and more snow. It was a brutal winter, which affected local businesses, which in turn affected the stations’ advertising picture. “Activity has been a little soft,” says Vesely. “It has to be the weather.”
The stations are battling for advantage. WKOW leads into early evening news with Dr. Oz at 4 p.m. WMTV has increased its news presence with multimedia journalists under new news director Russ Bruhn. “We are back to being fully staffed, as we were before the recession,” says Vesely.
WISC enjoys great success with its uniquely branded website and continues to enjoy a distinct connection on all platforms to Madison residents. Once those temperatures stabilize, the market’s countless bicycles and kayaks will come out.
“People love the area, especially when spring comes,” Bier says. “If spring comes.”
WHAT’S WORKING IN MADISON
‘3000’ REASONS TO VISIT WISC WEBSITE
WISC’s Web URL evokes both the past and the future. Channel3000.com was hatched in the late ‘90s by Internet Broadcasting, which was also responsible for WCCO Minneapolis’ Channel4000.com and other spaceagey station sites. The others have since switched to traditional URLs, but WISC remains committed to Channel3000.com. “We stayed away from using the call letters because this was a different business, and we were interested in drawing not only our viewers but also those of other stations,” says Tom Bier, WISC VP and general manager.
It’s hard to argue with Channel3000. com’s success; fully 44.3% of Madison’s adult population visits the site at least once a month, according to a study from the Media Audit in August 2013. That’s seventh-best in the U.S., behind local digital fixtures such as KSL.com, WRAL.com and WMUR.com.
The station—and the nation— faced the phantom menace of Y2K not long after Channel3000. com launched. “I was tempted to promote it at the time with a line like ‘Channel 3000, good for the next thousand years’,” Bier says.
He may be right.
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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.