Market Eye: Winds of Change

WLS has ruled the Chicago airwaves for eons—so long that the competition is convinced it’s time to try something new and bold in DMA No. 3. WBBM is going with a streamlined news approach, with a lone anchor and fewer over-the-shoulder graphics. WCIU has an offbeat morning program hosted by a veteran of radio and TV, and WFLD plans to shake up its local presentation, too.

“Some stations here have been doing things the same way for a long time,” says WFLD VP/ General Manager Mike Renda. “We’re making changes on both sides of the camera for a different look. We clearly need to be distinctive.”

Several general managers confirm that the same old, same old does not fly in Chicago anymore. Some things are constants in the region: Politicians get in hot water, the Cubs break your heart, and WLS rules ratings. The ABC O&O won morning, evening and late news in February. NBC O&O WMAQ won prime and total day ratings thanks to the Olympics, but enough viewers switched to WLS at 10 p.m. for a 9.5 household rating/16 share—better than WMAQ’s 7.6/15.

WLS won the 2009 revenue race, according to BIA/Kelsey, its $126 million haul eclipsing Tribune flagship WGN’s $104.1 million, with Fox O&O WFLD and WMAQ just behind.

President/General Manager Emily Barr says WLS wins with deep, nuanced reporting and extraordinarily experience. “We’ve got incredible consistency and longevity among the people who report the news,” she says. “That buys a measure of comfort for viewers.”

The resource-sharing Local News Service, comprised of WBBM, WFLD, WMAQ and WGN, is a year old. WBBM President/General Manager Bruno Cohen says the setup has freed up his reporters to chase stories that no one else has. “All reporters are challenged to develop substantial lead stories,” he says, “and they’re coming through in spades.”

Chicago’s Spanish-language players include Univision’s WGBO and Telemundo’s WSNS.

Stations have benefited from local ties to primetime programs: Disgraced former governor Rod Blagojevich boosted The Apprentice numbers on WMAQ, while Chicago-based The Good Wife has been a boon for WBBM. Blagojevich’s trial in June will be a giant story in Chicago, where politics— and political skullduggery—is commonly referred to as a spectator sport.

WMAQ held an upfront presentation in conjunction with the network’s. “We had a closedcircuit presentation for a couple of hundred people,” says NBC Local Media Central and Western Region President Larry Wert. “We had some things we wanted to tell them about”—such as giant ratings gains since Jay Leno went back to The Tonight Show, and a digital content center for dispersing content on all platforms.

But few stations in America are doing more with digital content than Weigel’s WCIU. This TV is based out of the same facility, and the station offers no fewer than five multicast channels. “The U” has added 15 staffers for the new morning initiative, which sees Jeanne Sparrow host half-hour shows at 6, 7 and 8 a.m. “Being truly independent allows us certain flexibility,” says Weigel Executive VP Neal Sabin.

Curiosity about life after Oprah is high in Winfrey’s home market. Barr won’t say what WLS will do to fill that considerable hole in 2011, but WLS has the know-how to make a new franchise fly. “We have a couple of ideas,” she says. “We’re very excited about the possibilities.”

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Michael Malone

Michael Malone is content director at B+C and Multichannel News. He joined B+C in 2005 and has covered network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television, including writing the "Local News Close-Up" market profiles. He also hosted the podcasts "Busted Pilot" and "Series Business." His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The L.A. Times, The Boston Globe and New York magazine.