Market Eye: West Palm Beach-Fort Pierce

West Palm emerges from cold snap (DMA #38)
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As the name suggests, West Palm Beach may have the palm trees and picturesque shores one associates with paradise. But the recession was as rough here as it was in just about any market in America, with crippling foreclosure rates and unemployment.

“Florida was among the hardest-hit states, and South Florida was hit particularly hard,” says WPTV VP/General Manager Steve Wasserman. “It’s a very troubled economy we’re living through.”

Yet things are rebounding. Real estate values are climbing, and the area’s natural beauty continues to attract snowbirds and year-rounders alike. West Palm Beach-Fort Pierce is expected to gain almost 200,000 residents between 2008 and 2013, according to BIA/Kelsey. “There are more local businesses opening up,” says WPBF President/ General Manager Caroline Scollard-Taplett. “There are good signs all around.”

Multiple general managers are relatively new to their posts. Scollard-Taplett was promoted from within in 2008, the same year Wasserman arrived from WDIV Detroit. Arika Zink, who manages the local Four Points stations, arrived in June.

West Palm has served as a springboard for general managers to corporate posts. Former WPEC GM Diana Wilkin is now president of affiliate relations at CBS, and former WPTV boss Brian Lawlor is Scripps’ senior VP of television.

Aided by a monster Olympics, NBC affiliate WPTV cruised through February sweeps, winning all the major races. It took late news with an 8.8 household rating/ 16.2 share, ahead of WPEC’s 7.0 rating/12.1 share. But CBS affiliate WPEC grabbed the late-news title in November, ahead of ABC outlet WPBF, which won the 25-54 race. WPTV routinely wins mornings, and moved its news up to 4:30 a.m. in January. “We have a real stranglehold on the morning audience, and we wanted to extend that,” Wasserman says.

The No. 38 DMA boasts strong owners. Scripps owns WPTV, WPBF is part of Hearst, Freedom has WPEC and Raycom owns Fox affiliate WFLX, whose news comes from WPEC. Four Points owns CW outlet WTVX, MyNetworkTV affiliate WTCN and Azteca affiliate WWHB, which launched a joint WeAreWestPalm.com “community portal” last year. “People in the area have a nice complete online resource from us,” Zink says.

Stations are scrapping for an advantage. WPBF has added Estrella TV, WPEC produced a Super Bowl special for several Freedom- owned stations, and WPTV has the local ESPN Radio outlet handling its sports.

West Palm has been unseasonably cold this winter, but the locals say brighter days are ahead. “We’re definitely seeing signs of improvement,” says WPEC General Manager Brien Kennedy, mentioning auto and retail perking up. “We’re encouraged that things are getting better.”

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