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WOI-TV joins in fray for 6 o’clock news ratings


WOI-TV Channel 5, long the No. 3 station in the Des Moines television market, will add a half-hour newscast at 6 p.m , beginning Sept. 12. Al Sandubrae, vice president for news of WOI parent Citadel Broadcasting Corp., admitted WOI is “swimming upstream” in the battle for audience share, but after five years of turnaround efforts, is “in this game 100 percent,” he said.

The station, Central Iowa’s oldest, is fighting “perceptions and misconceptions based on some not-so-recent history,” he said. For one thing, work still remains to educate local television viewers that the station is no longer owned by Iowa State University, which operated WOI from its 1949 licensure by the Federal Communications Commission until the Iowa Board of Regents sold it in 1991. For another, Sandubrae believes WOI has been unfairly pilloried by other media engaging in “Channel 5 bashing,” a “sport” he anticipates will cease after the station’s debut in the 6 o’clock time slot next month.

“We know from swimming up that stream of history, it’s going to take a while,” he said. “We also know the quality of our product is phenomenal.”

When it moved its offices to Des Moines from Ames in 1991, WOI also moved its 6 p.m. newscast to 5 p.m., a tact that in retrospect not only took WOI off the radar screen of 6 o’clock news viewers, but also may have weakened its 10 p.m. audience share, as viewers tend to watch the same station at 6 and 10. The historic gate-closer in the Nielsen Media Research ratings race, WOI had serious problems “we needed to fix” five years ago when Sandubrae joined Citadel, the parent company of the station’s owner, Capital Communications Co. Inc.

“We frankly looked at the history of the market place, the complex nature and structure of the market and came to realize that part of the problem could be the perception that because we don’t have a 6 o’clock newscast, our 10 o’clock newscast isn’t credible,” he said.

Resolving some issues, such as increasing stability and longevity among the on-air personalities to give viewers what Sandubrae calls a “comfortability factor that can’t be underestimated,” was a matter of patience. Though chief meteorologist Brad Edwards and Sports Director John Walters both had been on board since 1996, the station was bringing in new co-anchors to become the “face of the station.” So the makeover started with “new, fresh, dynamic, important content,” Sundubrae said.

“How do we become competitive in the marketplace? The answer was, and I would stress very vehemently, still is the content.”

The station’s weak Nielsen ratings performance, based on what experts industrywide are calling an outdated diary system used in smaller markets like Des Moines, isn’t a true barometer of the quality improvements that have been made since 2000, Sandubrae insists. “I wish every day that I will wake up and find this to be a metered market,” he said of the electronic system used in larger markets that provides more accurate, up-to-date information in just minutes. The Nielsen system, he said, “makes no delineation on quality” and also does not measure channel surfing as American TV watchers choose from a broad array of network and cable offerings.

A station’s audience share is an important consideration for media buyers, but Sandubrae said WOI has been fortunate to have clients who are regular viewers and appreciate the popularity of features like “Friday Night Blitz,” Channel 5’s popular sports wrap-up that claims to feature more prep football highlights than KCCI and WHO combined.

Offering anecdotal evidence that the station can not only compete, but break its share of new stories in a spirited local market, News Director Scott Frederick points to Channel 5’s lead coverage of the high-profile Pierre Pierce case, from the filing of charges against the former University of Iowa basketball star in January to the surprise plea agreement last week in Dallas County District Court. WOI reporter Marisa Mendelson was filling dual roles as a reporter and photographer and was the lone representative of Central Iowa television media covering jury selection in the Pierce trial when the deal between prosecutors and the defense team was announced, allowing Channel 5 to beat its local competition to the story.

An underdog among stations sending entire crews to cover high-profile news stories like the Pierce case, WOI puts its “heart and soul and fight up against” its higher-staffed competitors, co-anchor Lisa Carponelli said. “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.”   Though a risky and expensive move – WOI is also investing “millions of dollars” to update its equipment to high-definition TV standards, Sandubrae said – station executives thought the timing was right for WOI to go head to head against its competition. The station has been talking about adding a 6 p.m. newscast for several years, but finally made the commitment a couple of months ago.

“For a multitude of reasons, this is the right thing to do,” Sandubrae said.

For one thing, the station’s news department has solved its stability issue. Carponelli is in her fourth year and though the co-anchor chair was empty for about a year, Chris Flanagan came on board earlier this year. “He’s like that perfect shoe,” Sandubrae said. “We had to find the right person.”

WOI will not abandon its 5 p.m. newscast, but will gear it toward the largely female audience that currently views it – a demographic the station wants to retain, but also diversify with its 6 o’clock segment. By structuring its current 5 o’clock news like its competitors’ 6 o’clock newscasts, WOI was in a sense “boxing against our own shadow,” Sandubrae said, because the 5 p.m. demographic doesn’t support such aggressive content.

Evening newscasts at both 5 and 6 give the news team a chance take a more in-depth approach to stories and flesh them out more, Carponelli said. “Whatever you see at 5, you’ll see more of at 6,” she said. “It gives reporters greater abilities to share what they know and in the process really benefit viewers.”

One feature of the 6 o’clock news will be more “talk back,” or conversations between the anchor team and reporters in the field to give viewers more insight. Having two early-evening newscasts “gives us the ability to debrief our reports,” an important hallmark that will distinguish WOI from its competition, Sandubrae said.

As KCCI and WHO continue to gnaw at each other for the No. 1 spot, WOI is a little like the proverbial tortoise slowly making gains. “There’s an audience out there for the taking, if people will give us a chance,” Flanagan said.

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