Market Eye: 'Fighting' Spirit

Economic struggles made 'Michiana’ emblematic of nation’s ills
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By most any measure, times are tough in South Bend–Elkhart. Ind. President Obama chose Elkhart as the site of his first presidential speech outside Washington in 2009, talking up plans to reverse the country’s economic malaise. Obama has returned several times, prompting The New York Times to refer to the region as “an administration touchstone for the crisis he inherited and for his plans to surmount it.”

Elkhart is where much of the nation’s recreational vehicles are produced and is home to other manufacturing outfits. Many of the companies are operating below capacity or have ceased operation altogether. “We kind of became the poster child for economic hard times,” concedes Sally Brown, president and general manager of WSBT.

Nielsen’s annual market ranking, released in August, brought more glum news. South Bend–Elkhart went from 336,220 television homes in the 2010-2011 TV season to 322,090 for 2011-2012—dropping from No. 93 to No. 97, one of the most precipitous slides among the Top 100 markets. Just two years ago, it was No. 89.

Yet the local news scene is lively. South Bend–Elkhart even got a new news player in ABC affiliate WBND, which debuted full newscasts last April. TV executives here say the quality of news befi ts a larger market. “I flip around the South Bend channels and sometimes shake my head at how good the news is,” says Marci Burdick, senior VP of broadcast at Schurz Communications, which is based in the market.

In last May’s sweeps, Schurz’s WSBT won the total-day household ratings race, along with primetime, morning and late news—the latter with a 7 rating/23.6 share, ahead of WNDU’s 5.6/19. (Fox affiliate WSJV posted a 5.7/11.7 at 10 p.m.) WNDU, an NBC affiliate, won 6 p.m. news in a tight race. WNDU thrives in adults 25-54; its 3.5/17.9 at 11 p.m. topped WSBT’s 2.8/14.3.

WSBT’s revenue of $13.5 million in 2010 edged out WNDU’s $12.8 million, according to BIA/Kelsey.

CBS affiliate WSBT benefits from sharing a building with Schurz, a family-owned company with deep roots in northern Indiana. Sally Brown took over the general manager job last year after a long run as GM at several radio stations in the building. Radio and television share a newsroom, and Schurz’ South Bend Tribune is across town.

Brown says WSBT thrives on two key things: the market’s trust and a hyper-local focus. “The community really trusts WSBT to keep them informed on issues that are of importance in the local community,” she says. “The owners live here. People know that, and put their trust and faith in that.”

Quincy Newspapers owns WSJV, which “guarantees” its temperature forecasts will be within 5 degrees and kicks cash into a jackpot when it fails. Gray Television owns WNDU, which recently switched its branding to Your Breaking News and Weather Authority. “[It’s] a perfect description of who we are as a news organization,” John O’Brien, general manager, says via email.

Weigel has a full hand in South Bend, with WBND, MyNetworkTV affiliate WMYS and CW outlet WCWW— along with This TV and Me-TV subchannels. Weigel had a deal in place a few years back to sell the stations to Schurz for $22 million, but it died in the regulatory process.

In August 2010, Weigel made a major change at WBND. “We got the green light to get into the news business,” says Jeff Guy, general manager.

WBND had aired an 11@11 newscast produced out of a sister station in Milwaukee. But after the corporate go-ahead, Guy found a new building, hired a news director in Aaron Ramey and set out to build a newsroom.

Forty hires later, WBND is in the news business. Guy credits Ramey for his tireless dedication to getting the outfit off the ground. “He’s worked in big markets and for big groups,” says Guy, “and brought a lot of experience.”

WBND added 7 p.m. news in September and offers two-minute mini-casts at 11:58 a.m. and 4:58 p.m., aiming to scoop the competition in their more traditional slots. WBND recently signed on with Rentrak for more timely ratings. “For a new news station, we needed another source to give us numbers 52 weeks a year,” says Guy. “Set-top box information is powerful, compared to a diary sample.”

Comcast is the market’s major cable operator; DirecTV and Dish Network have a greater combined presence.

The market revolves around Notre Dame University. The famed Fighting Irish football team has a winning record this season, and the university’s commitment to the community is unassailable as it invests in buildings and infrastructure, including its Innovation Park business incubation setup. Some 12,000 jobs are directly or indirectly tied to Notre Dame, which represents almost $900 million in annual economic activity.

“Notre Dame is very serious about the community,” says Brown. “I think they realize that if South Bend doesn’t win, they don’t win.”

Area residents are optimistic that a new mayor elected last week in South Bend will mean a new direction for the market.

“It’s not been easy, but we feel better,” says Jeff Guy. “Are we back where we used to be? No. Are we making progress? Yes.”

E-mail comments to mmalone@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @BCMikeMalone

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