Local TV

Storming the Fort

Southwest Florida stations in “survival mode” 8/01/2009 02:00:00 AM Eastern

Don't let the sun and surf fool you—Fort Myers may look like paradise, but it has been hit particularly hard by the recession. Florida is the No. 3 state in terms of foreclosure rates, according to RealtyTrac, and general managers in Fort Myers-Naples say the market's unemployment rate is around 13%—more than double the figure from a year ago.

The area's stations, with revenue down about 28% in the first half of 2009, are feeling the pinch. “We're in survival mode, like all other broadcasters in the country,” says WINK VP/General Manager Wayne Simons. “It's tough out there.”

It will probably get worse before it gets better, with the last of the snowbirds heading north for the dog days of summer. But the population swells again in the fourth quarter, when advertisers do their best to reconnect. Managers will tighten their belts until then.

“We're just trying to survive this economy and look for ways to operate more efficiently,” says WXCW President/General Manager Joe Schwartzel.

There's a robust ratings race between Fort Myers Broadcasting's CBS affiliate WINK and Waterman Broadcasting's NBC outlet WBBH. WBBH won morning and evening news in May, while WINK grabbed late news with a 7.9 household rating/15.3 share. WINK took primetime by a wide margin.

WBBH won the 2008 revenue crown, according to BIA Financial—its $26.8 million bested WINK's $25.3 million tally. Other stations in DMA No. 62 include Journal Broadcast's Fox outlet WFTX, Montclair's ABC affiliate WZVN and Sun Broadcasting's WXCW, a CW affiliate. WBBH manages WZVN, and WINK produces news for WXCW. Comcast is the area's big cable operator.

Fort Myers' major employers include the public school system, Publix grocery stores and Lee Memorial Health System. Despite the rough patch, general managers describe southwestern Florida as an excellent place to work and live, with lots of wealthy residents, favorable weather most of the year, and a lifestyle that revolves around boating and golf. “It's basically living in paradise,” Schwartzel says.

Like Vegas and Phoenix, Fort Myers has too many winsome attributes to stay down, say execs, who are investing to reap rewards when the recovery hits. WXCW, which has a winner in double-runs of Two and a Half Men at 7 p.m., extends its 10 p.m. news to an hour on Aug. 24. WINK's newish 7 p.m. newscast is building a strong demographic in soccer moms and businesspeople who work late; it will compete against a 7 p.m. newscast on WZVN that debuts Sept. 8. And WFTX is bullish on its lead anchors, recently singled out in the News-Press newspaper's “Best Of” compilation.

“Long-term, it's a great market to operate in,” Simons says. “I think the upside is all there.”

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