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Rapid Development

Tri-city market reinvents itself 2/07/2009 02:00:00 AM Eastern

Michigan's unemployment rate climbed to 10.6% in December, tops in the country. But while the automotive facilities on the east side of the state continue to sputter, general managers in the western Michigan DMA of Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo-Battle Creek say the market is doing a commendable job of reinventing itself.

The region pushed to diversify its economic base a few decades ago, and while times are certainly tough—home foreclosures dot the No. 39 DMA—the health-care and biotech industries are vibrant these days, evident in a giant Michigan State University medical school facility that opens in the fall.

“It's a challenging marketplace, but it's better to be in this part of the state than the eastern part,” says WWMT VP/General Manager Jim Lutton.

LIN's NBC affiliate WOOD dominated the November book, taking total day household ratings along with morning, evening and late news. Freedom's CBS outlet WWMT easily won primetime, with eight of the top 13 prime shows in November. Evenings are a lively race: WOOD was tops, but Gannett's ABC affiliate WZZM and WWMT both put up healthy numbers. Rounding out the market are Tribune's Fox affiliate WXMI, as well as a MyNetworkTV affiliate and small ABC affiliate owned by LIN. Charter and Comcast are the big cable operators.

Stations have been pushing to chip away at WOOD's lead. WWMT, which airs The CW on its digital channel, enticed former WOOD anchor Tom Van Howe out of retirement in July, after anchor Jeff McAtee was called for military duty; Van Howe is now the main guy at WWMT. WXMI expanded its morning news in September, going from two hours to four. WZZM shifted its Take Five & Company show to mornings, and is seeing growth in early a.m. news. “We're very happy with our morning performance,” says WZZM President/General Manager Janet Mason. “We're seeing good things at 6 a.m.”

But WOOD is well-positioned to hold its lead. It added a 10 p.m. news on its MyNetwork outlet a little over a year ago, and has the educational program Maranda: Where You Live on all three stations. “She's a kids' advocate,” says VP/General Manager Diane C. Kniowski. “It's a family-oriented program that helps protect kids from things like online predators.”

While the solid new industries certainly help the local economy, it'll be some time before the Grand Rapids market is considered booming. Station executives say the DMA slipped into a down period years before much of the country, and will hopefully pull out a little sooner. “It's Michigan,” Kniowski says. “It's a challenge.”

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