WGN ratings on the line: A tale of two stations

Just as Tribune Co. is about to emerge from its long bankruptcy nightmare, its television and radio flagships — respectively branded Chicago’s Very Own and The Voice of Chicago — face the prospect of out-of-town owners for the first time in their long histories.

A judge’s ruling Friday paved the way for Tribune Co. to exit Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and for private equity firm Oaktree Capital and other major creditors to hold the licenses for its broadcast properties, including WGN-Channel 9 and WGN-AM (720). Pending FCC approval, a new entity known as Oaktree Tribune would control the stations from outside of Chicago and presumably put them up for sale as quickly as possible.

No one knows whether the new ownership group will sell all of the broadcast properties together (in a deal that could be valued at $3 billion) or keep the Chicago media group intact, with WGN and the Chicago Tribune maintaining their historic connections. Either way, all eyes are on two of Chicago’s most fabled hometown frequencies.

Marty Wilke, who’s been vice president and general manager of WGN-Channel 9 since 2008 and subsequently added oversight of CLTV, has kept the station competitive and profitable throughout her tenure. Its success is underscored in July's Nielsen ratings so far.

 “WGN news has been very strong morning, noon and 9,” Wilke said Monday. WGN Morning News from 6 to 9am weekdays, which is by far the most creative and engaging television news program in Chicago, commands a solidly loyal viewership, ranking second among all households and No. 1 in the key demographics of viewers from 18 to 49 and from 25 to 54. WGN Midday News is second behind only market leader ABC 7 — “nipping at their heels and edging out WLS [and] ranking No. 1 on certain days,” Wilke said.

The latest addition to the station’s news lineup, WGN Evening News at 5pm, “continues to deliver consistent ratings in a very competitive time period,” she said, while the prime time WGN News at Nine outdelivers rival Fox Chicago at 9pm and holds the No. 3 or No. 4 position among all late newscasts in the market. On any given day, WGN’s 9pm newscast has been capable of outdelivering ABC 7’s and NBC 5’s 10pm newscasts in the 18-to-49 and 25-to-54 adult demos, Wilke noted.

The ratings picture looks entirely different at news/talk WGN-AM (720), which may be in the throes of its worst summer quarter ever. What traditionally had been two of the station’s greatest ratings assets — Cubs baseball and a marquee morning show — now appear to be its most serious liabilities. Arbitron Portable People Meter figures for June showed WGN in 11th place overall with a 3.9 percent audience share. Among listeners between 25 and 54, the station ranked 23rd with a 1.8 share.

Tom Langmyer, who’s been vice president and general manager of the station since 2005, is still dealing with a disaffected listenership and a number of horrendous talent decisions — both remnants of the reign of former Tribune Co. CEO Randy Michaels and his programming henchman, Kevin Metheny. More pressing concerns at the moment are the disappointing performance of the Cubs and that of morning personality Jonathon Brandmeier, who's lost the ratings momentum of his first few months on WGN.

But Langmyer insists the ratings challenges he faces are not unique to WGN.

“This monthly Arbitron trend report was very different for Chicago’s all-news, sports, news/talk and talk stations,” he said. “Because we’re seeing this in several other cities in June, we’re watching it closely but [are] not overly concerned.

“When you have strong competing radio stations in all the various ‘spoken word’ formats who’ve remained very consistent in programming or have made changes, yet are seeing similar results, you know the ratings service needs to be questioned. To see WBBM, WGN, WLS-AM, the Score and ESPN 1000 all suddenly drop as they did in a single month is certainly curious.”


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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)