Life in the Unfast Lane

With the American auto industry in a sustained depression, business isn’t exactly booming in Flint, Mich., the 66th-largest broadcast market in the country. But it isn’t a complete bust either.

Like operations in nearby Detroit, the GM plant in Flint has been downsized, and auto-parts maker Delphi filed for bankruptcy last year. Still, “the advertising market is fairly boisterous,” says Thomas Bryson, president/general manager of ABC-owned WJRT.

Last year, stations took in $50.8 million in revenue, according to BIA Financial. That’s low for a market Flint’s size but perhaps not surprising given GM’s woes. Advertising is “holding its own” this year, says Bryson. “It’s just not growing like in other markets.”

In a two-company town, it’s fitting that the local-news competition is dominated by two stations, WJRT and Meredith Corp.’s CBS affiliate WNEM. In distant third place is NBC affiliate WEYI, owned by Barrington Broadcasting, which also owns the area’s local CW affiliate WBSF.

Because Flint is a company town where people either are or are related to “former or current employees,” says Bryson, “GM doesn’t have a great mandate to advertise in the market. Most are pretty guaranteed customers.”

For the same reason, other manufacturers stay away, too. However, dealerships do provide a steady cash flow. And this year, Flint stations got some boost from the midterm elections, but there was not the kind of frenzied political buying that occurred in other markets.

WJRT and WNEM are hyper-competitive at all times, regularly trading the top spots in all dayparts. For the past two years, WJRT has won with its morning newscasts, while WNEM has won the key 11 p.m. broadcast. In the May books, however, they were dead even at noon, where each had an 8 rating/29 share in households, and at 6 p.m., where each pulled in a 12/27.

For the past two years, WNEM’s 5 p.m. news won, but now that lead seems less secure. After logging a dismal 1/4 household rating for its 4 p.m. broadcast of The Jane Pauley Show in May 2005 against WNEM’s broadcast of The Oprah Winfrey Show, WJRT went to a 4 p.m. newscast. In this year’s May books, First at Four managed a 4/15, while Oprah dipped from 9/31 to 8/27.

Since May, WNEM has also been producing a 10 p.m. newscast for WSMH, the Fox affiliate owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group. The results satisfy WNEM VP/General Manager Al Blinke: “In May and in the July book, we saw ratings growth in all key demos.”

WNEM is running MyNetworkTV on its digital channel. WJRT is trying to draw attention to its digital channel with distinct programming, ranging from expanded news features to unusual syndicated shows, such as San Francisco-based talk show View From the Bay. “Our goal is to eventually program it as an entirely new station,” says Bryson. “If we didn’t do it differently, why would people watch?”

On Election Night, both stations directed viewers to their Websites for expanded content; WNEM’s site streamed live video from the studio of all-news WNEM(AM). Says Blinke, “It definitely did bring in people.”

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