Market Eye: On Great Lake, No Great Shakes

It’s a tough go for the economy in Flint-Saginaw-Bay City, Mich., but there are reasons for optimism

Flint-Saginaw-Bay City, Mich., has its challenges, but station officials here are hopeful iffy ratings won’t be one of them in the near future. Nielsen has installed 400-plus code readers, which pick up audio signals to detail what is being watched. It’s in test mode, but early returns are encouraging. “It’ll be a little more accurate than diaries, obviously,” says Becky Butcher, WEYI general manager.

Meredith’s WNEM, a CBS affiliate, and Gray Television’s WJRT, aligned with ABC, trade off the news ratings titles in the tri-city market, located near the thumb of the Michigan mitten. WNEM is based in Saginaw, with a streetside studio in Flint. WJRT is in Flint, with a bureau in Saginaw. “This is, and will remain, a competitive market between us and JRT,” says Al Blinke, WNEM VP and general manager. “It’s always a friendly competition.”

Gray acquired WJRT and WTVG Toledo earlier this year for $128 million. Hilton Howell, Gray president and CEO, called them “outstanding, community-focused television stations” located in “growing, dynamic markets.”

1204_Market_Chart.jpgThe latter statement is optimistic. Flint-Saginaw-Bay City dropped two spots in the most recent Nielsen rankings to No. 70, and BIA/Kelsey has the market at No. 79 in revenue. There remains substantial automotive manufacturing, along with universities and a large medical community. “Coming off the political season, the economy is what it’s always like in Flint—flat,” says Butcher.

NBC affiliate WEYI is owned by Howard Stirk Holdings, which is closely aligned with Sinclair. Sinclair has Fox affiliate WSMH, while sister Cunningham Broadcasting owns CW outlet WBSF. WNEM airs MyNetwork-TV on its dot-two channel. Charter and Comcast are the market’s major subscription TV operators.

WJRT held the total-day ratings advantage in the May sweeps. It also won 6 a.m., with WNEM having the upper hand in early evenings. WNEM put up a 7.1 household rating/ 23.2 share at 11 p.m., ahead of WJRT’s 5.9/19.4. WJRT took a slim win in viewers 24-54 at 11.

WNEM stands on its “Asking Tough Questions” branding and has a “TV 5 Rescue Squad” advocacy brand. “We aim to hold the officials accountable,” says news director Ian Rubin. “We take it from the perspective of the little guy.”

Rubin and Blinke speak of enterprise journalism at WNEM. “Everybody does the same old stories,” says Blinke. “We try to get separation from the other guys.”

WNEM produces the 10 p.m. news for WSMH and extended its news brand this fall with a 7 p.m. newscast on its MyNet subchannel.

Change doesn’t happen overnight in economically adrift markets like the trio on Lake Huron, but cafes and shops are supplanting the burned-out storefronts in downtown Flint. “We’re less dependent on auto-related businesses,” says Rubin. “We see progress—there are things to do downtown.”

WHAT’S WORKING IN FLINT-SAGINAW-BAY CITY: RESCUE SQUAD DIGS DEEP FOR VIEWERS

In September, WNEM debuted the TV 5 Rescue Squad, an advocacy franchise to assist “the little guy,” says news director Ian Rubin. Rescue Squad has helped get residents’ gas services turned back on and knocked exorbitant water bills down to size. Tips frequently come from Facebook and Twitter; segments stoke goodwill with viewers and push WNEM toward more enterprise content. “We’re less reliant on daybook news and things out of the newspaper,” says Rubin.

Most everyone in the newsroom pitches in, and sometimes it means getting a bit dirty. Several times each winter, when the story involves someone being snowed in, WNEM news crews grab shovels and dig in. “[Rescue Squad] gives them a break from predictable general-assignment reporting,” says Rubin, “and gives them a good feeling when they help people.”