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Market Eye: Driven to Get Back on Track

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WJRT has long been a power in the Flint-Saginaw-Bay City, Mich., DMA, but big changes at the ABC affiliate may have opened the door for WNEM to challenge for the top spot.

Disney-ABC sold WJRT and WTVG Toledo late in 2010, with broadcast vet George Lilly and his SJL Broadcasting outfit taking over. WJRT has a new general manager in Peter Veto, while the assistant news director, Jayne Hodak, was promoted to news director. Some key faces in the talent lineup have departed.

Meanwhile, Al Blinke, WNEM VP/general manager, said his CBS affiliate’s consistency has helped it move forward. “WJRT made a lot of changes, and I think it’s starting to affect them,” Blinke said. “They had the longest-running anchor team. Now we do.”

The May sweeps results show a tightening race. WJRT won in total-day household ratings, just ahead of Meredith’s WNEM. WJRT took the morning households race, while WNEM won adults 25-54. WNEM claimed primetime, early evening and late news—the latter with an 8.2 household rating/ 24.2 share, better than WJRT’s 7.3/21.5. In late news, WNEM had a 4.5/22 in adults 25-54, WJFT a 3.2/16.

Hodak attributes WNEM’s strong performance to a more substantial Nielsen sample on WNEM’s end of the market. (WNEM is in Saginaw and WJRT is in Flint.) She finds working for a smaller, family-owned company beneficial. “It’s easier to ask [for things] and receive,” Hodak said. “Decisions are made much quicker, instead of going through corporate— many levels of corporate.”

Beyond their ratings battle, the two stations are well ahead of the competition, which includes Sinclair’s Fox affiliate WSMH and Barrington Broadcasting’s NBC affiliate WEYI. Barrington also owns CW station WBSF. WNEM airs MyNetworkTV on its subchannel. TCT Ministries owns the religious channel WAQP. Comcast and Charter are the main subscription TV operators in DMA No. 68.

Michigan’s economic ills are well known. “The area is still struggling,” said Hodak, citing sky-high unemployment and home foreclosures in WJRT’s home county. But things may be picking up in the greater region. The automobile manufacturers that define the state have expanded post-bankruptcy, and a burgeoning healthcare industry keeps busy with an aging population.

“It’s getting better,” Blinke said. “I’m not saying it’s fixed—Michigan is in tough economic times—but it’s not what it was a few years ago.”

Besides the robust late news lead-ins CBS’ primetime provides, WNEM has benefited from what Blinke calls a “seasoned” anchor crew. “It’s nice to have people on the air here who know the market and help bring along the younger people at the station,” he said.

With its “Coverage You Can Count On” branding, WNEM is also hitting harder in its reporting. “We are focused on asking tough questions,” said Blinke. “We hold politicians and others responsible for problems, and stay consistent until we get answers.”

WEYI has the quirky URL, and its NBC25 News mobile app offers news alerts, Doppler radar and restaurant deals.

Chad Conklin, the longtime WSMH general sales manager, took over as general manager of the Sinclair station in spring 2011. “Having been a part of this community and this station for more than a decade, I understand the challenges and needs facing our local businesses and advertisers, and the demands by our viewers for quality entertainment, news and sports programming,” Conklin said at the time.

Mitt Romney has major Michigan roots, but the state may nonetheless be a jump ball come Election Day. That’s good news for the stations in eastern Michigan, which are seeing spending from Republican Super PACs. “As of today,” said Blinke, “it looks like Michigan may be a swing state.”

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