Market Eye: Midwestern 'Super' Star

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It has been an eventful 2012 for Indianapolis, to say the least. First there was the Super Bowl at Lucas Oil Stadium on Feb. 5. Less than a month later, southern Indiana was struck by fatal tornadoes. A few days after that, favorite adopted son Peyton Manning was released by the Colts. Coordinating tornado coverage and fund-raisers, and cranking out Manning specials, had the DMA No. 26 newsrooms hopping the first week of March. “That week, we were pretty stretched,” says John Cardenas, vice president and general manager at WTHR Indianapolis. “But everyone was at the ready.”

WTHR was born ready. Dispatch Broadcast’s NBC affiliate, the market leader, aired the Super Bowl and has enjoyed what Cardenas calls a “halo effect” ever since. “A week after, ratings, particularly for the morning show, were through the roof,” he says. “We’ve maintained a lot of that since Feb. 5.”

Cardenas, who took over at WTHR after the death of Jim Tellus in 2010, was singled out by B&C as General Manager of the Year in 2011.

LIN’s CBS affiliate, WISH, took primetime in the February sweeps, but WTHR won all the other major races, including late news with an 8.3 household rating/16 share— ahead of WISH’s 6.4/12.

One particularly hot contest is mornings, as emerging Fox affiliate WXIN pulled ahead of WISH in February. Tribune’s WXIN is live 4-10 a.m., giving viewers a big target for sampling. Larry Delia, VP/GM, credits the talent for retaining viewers. “The product oozes personality—it’s how we differentiate ourselves,” he says. “The talent has fabulous chemistry. You can’t buy that.”

The dominant subscription TV operator is Comcast, and AT&T’s U-verse is a competitor.

Indianapolis features a pair of duopolies: LIN also owns MyNetworkTV affiliate WNDY and Tribune holds CW affiliate WTTV. Other players include Scripps-owned ABC outlet WRTV and LeSea’s religious independent WHMB, which features high school and college sports and syndicated programs that are dated enough to be family-friendly, and inexpensive. “Most of our shows have a lot of age on them,” concedes Keith Passon, WHMB general manager.

WTHR has a knack for getting viewers to turn to channel 13, skills it has had to develop due to NBC’s weak primetime and the loss of Oprah Winfrey at 4 p.m. “You have to market your product that way,” says Cardenas. “[Viewers] have a choice. Who offers you the most comprehensive, appealing and distinct coverage? I think the station has been able to carve out that niche.”

WTHR’s rivals continue to fi ght. Delia says WXIN went from last among the Big Four stations in weekly news hours to first in about 18 months; it now airs 55. WISH has Anderson at 4 p.m. and a new talk show from former anchor Mike Ahern on WNDY Thursday nights.

WISH continues to push its investigative brand. The station produced a legislationchanging series on youths snorting easily obtainable bath salts, to disastrous effect. “Those are examples of the good things we can do,” says Jeff White, WISH VP/general manager.

Speaking of good things the Indy stations do, they raised over a million dollars for Hoosiers affected by the tornadoes—no great surprise to general managers here. “The market is filled with really good people who respond to helping their neighbors,” says Delia.

The Super Bowl gave lots of non-residents a chance to sample Indy’s goodwill, hospitality and local entertainment. “I don’t think anybody walked away from the Super Bowl and said Indianapolis did not do a great job,” says White. “We have the Indy 500 and we’ve had the NCAA [basketball] Final Four, but this took it to a whole new level.”

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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.