Wich’ One to Watch?

The state fair in Hutchinson, Kan., wrapped Sept. 19, but the party is still rocking in DMA No. 69. Football season is underway, and an already blazing election season is heating up as November draws nearer. Sen. Sam Brownback’s run for governor has jump-started what one area general manager calls “a domino effect,” throwing open both the gubernatorial and senatorial races and kicking ample cash to the Wichita-Hutchinson TV stations.

“Political has been much stronger than we anticipated,” says KSAS VP/General Manager Jeff McCausland. “It’s been a very big political year so far.”

The ratings races are hotly contested, too. Schurz’s CBS affiliate KWCH had a robust May sweeps, winning total day ratings along with primetime, early evening and late news; its 14.3 household rating/29.9 share at 10 p.m. bested KAKE’s 8.3 rating/17.3 share. An ABC affiliate owned by Gray TV, KAKE won the local morning races and is growing revenue with an increased focus on local sales.

Schurz has an outsized presence in Wichita. Its area stations are grouped under the Sunfl ower Broadcasting banner and include KWCH, CW affiliate KSCW and a handful of smaller CBS affiliates across the vast DMA. KWCH produces the nightly news for Newport TV’s Fox affiliate KSAS, and has a joint sales agreement with Entravision for Univision affiliate KDCU. Sunflower President/General Manager Joan Barrett hopes to have Spanish-language late news on the station next year. Besides the traditional station sites, Sunflower offers local business search engine FetchToto. com and the school sports site CatchitKansas.com.

CatchitKansas, which does about a million page views a month in-season, is powered by a half-dozen KWCH on-air personalities, as well as high school students paid what Barrett calls “a nominal fee” to report from their schools. “They enjoy getting to do some work for a real media company,” she says.

According to Barrett, KWCH thrives on big-J journalism, including hard-hitting investigative reports from the FactFinder 12 team. “We firmly believe in the journalistic mission, and put in the time and effort to be responsible and credible,” she says. “For that, we are held in high regard by our viewers.”

Other entrants in the market include Mercury Broadcasting’s MyNetworkTV outlet KMTW, which is managed out of KSAS and rebroadcasts the Fox affiliate’s 9 p.m. news at midnight, and New Vision’s NBC affiliate KSNW. John Dawson has succeeded Al Buch, who retired at the end of last year, as president and general manager of KSNW. “The reason I was brought in is to push sales—that’s my background,” Dawson says. “We’re trying to be more aggressive and do things differently.”

KSNW stands for Kansas State Network—a string of New Vision-owned NBC affi liates across the market, along with Telemundo outlet KSNG. Viewers in the various submarkets see the same A-block in their 5, 6 and 10 p.m. news, but the second batch of reports goes hyper-local. “The stories in the B-block are specific to their areas,” Dawson says, “and the commercials are, too.”

Aircraft manufacturing is the primary industry here; major outfits with a presence in Wichita-Hutchinson include Cessna and Boeing. The aeronautical industry has sustained heavy layoffs in recent years. “They’re a substantial part of the market, and they’ve taken a pretty hard hit,” says KAKE VP/General Manager Dan Wall.

The region is largely agrarian, though major touring acts now stop at Wichita’s new InTrust Bank Arena. October events at the downtown 15,000-seat venue include WWE Monday Night Raw, former American Idol star Carrie Underwood and Wichita Thunder hockey. “We get a lot of big-name entertainment,” Dawson says. “Heretofore, we’ve not been on the list.”

Extreme weather—the kind that almost snagged Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz—is a common occurrence, not to mention a big news driver. Attendees at the state fair took cover earlier this month when a series of tornadoes ripped through the market. A freak hailstorm on Sept. 15 left about a thousand holes in a golf course in the region, and dropped what may have been the largest hailstone in state history, at almost 8 inches in diameter.

Rentrak has also left its own sizable footprint in Wichita- Hutchinson. KWCH and KAKE subscribe to the upstart ratings service, and KSNW is considering it. Unlike almost all of Rentrak’s station partners, KWCH actually dropped Nielsen at the beginning of 2010. “We took a hard look at the value and cost of the product,” Barrett explains. “The two weren’t matching, so we walked away.” The lack of Nielsen numbers has not been an issue for ad sales, she adds.

Stations have been gearing up for the fall season. KWCH launched the best-of-Wichita show The Weekend Crew on Saturday nights. KSAS has Nate Berkus, Entourage and Curb Your Enthusiasm. KSNW is pushing to grow morning ratings after “remixing” talent, according to Dawson. KAKE will swap out Ellen for Dr. Oz next year, and is crunching its new Rentrak numbers. “We’re in the learning stages right now, but it’s an exciting and useful service,” Wall says.

Celebrating its 50th year, KWCH broadcast live from the Kansas fair. “We see it as a way to really touch our viewers, especially in such a large DMA,” Barrett says. “We’ve been doing it for years—it’s part of our culture.”

E-mail comments to mmalone@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @StationBiz

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.