A News War Brews

There's more than beer brewing in Milwaukee. Local TV stations are in a fierce battle, with no clear winner. Perennial news leader WTMJ, a Journal Broadcasting-owned NBC affiliate, has stumbled. And stiff competition from Hearst-Argyle ABC affiliate WISN, Fox's WITI and Weigel Communications upstart CBS outlet WDJT has made Nielsen's 33rd market one of the Midwest's most dynamic.

WTMJ, long dominant in every news daypart, still leads ratings in late news. But WISN has emerged in the past year as No. 1 in early morning and, thanks to a lead-in boost from Dr. Phil and The Oprah Winfrey Show, early evening. WITI, with 44 hours of local news a week, is a close second in early morning and earns solid marks for its 9-10:30 p.m. news block. Even fourth-placed WDJT has seen improved ratings.

WISN partially attributes its rise to expanding both weekend morning news and diversity on-air. The station has one of the country's few all-female anchor teams for its 5 and 10 p.m. news and an African-American weekend team.

But news isn't the only game in town. NBC's weak prime is hurting many affiliates, while WISN, WITI and WDJT are growing there. Also, WDJT took two syndication powerhouses from WTMJ last fall. “We have a very hot CBS network, and getting Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! was significant,” says WDJT General Manager Jim Hall.

WITI General Manager Chuck Steinmetz credits Fox's strong prime and his station's late news. He also notes the city's economic resurgence, thanks to downtown revitalization and the presence of Fortune 500 companies like Harley-Davidson and Northwestern Mutual Life: “Milwaukee has blossomed into a great Midwestern, midsized town.”

And local broadcasters have benefited. According to BIA Financial, stations took in $180.5 million in gross revenues in 2004, including about $20 million in political monies, up from $148.9 million in 2003. WTMJ led with $56.5 million. This year, stations estimate that political races and issue advertising could draw as much as $10 million.

Sinclair Broadcast Group owns a duopoly, with UPN affiliate WCGV and WB affiliate WVTV (see box at right). WDJT is part of Weigel Broadcasting's triopoly, along with Telemundo affiliate WYTU and independent WMLW, both of which are carried on the market's main cable company, Time Warner Cable, and DirecTV.

WTMJ recently launched the market's first digital broadcast channel, with a version of NBC's Weather Plus, just one way local stations are hoping to pull ahead in a tight race.

“There are a lot of changes here,” says WISN General Manager Frank Biancuzzo. “There aren't many markets where you can still have a big ratings turnaround.”