Market Eye: Fort-ified in Florida

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Skies are brightening in Fort Myers-Naples, Fla. It being fall, the population will soon swell when the snowbirds return as part of their annual migratory pattern. The new Nielsen market rankings saw Fort Myers jump from No. 65 to No. 62—the largest leap forward for any station in the Top 90 markets.

Most important, the home foreclosures that crippled Fort Myers as badly as almost any market in the United States are mostly in the rearview mirror. “It’s a huge relief, compared to where we were three years ago,” says Lara Kunkler, president of WZVN owner Montclair Communications. “I don’t think we see completely bright light at the end of the tunnel, but things have stabilized.”

To be sure, Fort Myers is ! ghting just to get back to where it was pre-recession, as evidenced by the fact that it had been DMA No. 62 as recently as 2009. Tourism is strong, and Florida’s typical role as a swing state will pump candidate cash into station coffers. “I think next year is going to be big for political spending,” says Wayne Simons, WINK vice president and general manager. “The rest of the economy, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Buoyed by the recent momentum, stations are increasing their local output, none more so than WINK. The CBS affiliate added a 4 p.m. newscast in place of Oprah Winfrey June 6. On September 6, WINK slotted in a 10 a.m. news broadcast, with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire moving to WBBH. The station has also increased its weekend news from 90 minutes per morning to two hours.

There is one heck of a ratings race going on between WINK and NBC affiliate WBBH. The two tied in total day household ratings and early evening news in May. WINK won prime, a ratings point better than ABC affiliate WZVN and Fox af! liate WFTX, and grabbed late news with a 6 rating/11 share, just ahead of WBBH’s 5/10. WBBH won the morning news race.

WBBH manages WZVN through what Steve Pontius, executive vice president and general manager at WBBH, says is one of the nation’s first local marketing agreements (LMA). The stations have a joint 100-person newsroom cranking out 16 unique newscasts, and 12 hours of news, every weekday. Anchors are dedicated to a lone station, while reporters mostly appear on both.

Both offer local HD and a tireless focus on all things hyperlocal. “We live and breathe and believe the future of our business, and our industry, is local product,” Pontius says. “With a gazillion cable channels and the changing relationship between affiliates and networks, the only thing you can control is your local news product.”

That includes online. WBBH-WZVN has around 14 people working primarily on the Web; the two maintain separate Websites. Fort Myers Broadcasting owns WINK and launched WINK AM and FM radio outlets last year. WINK is in the process of shifting from the VHF to the UHF band, and should be set up on channel 50 by the end of the year. Waterman Broadcasting owns WBBH. Journal Broadcast Group has WFTX, while CW affiliate WXCW is part of Sun Broadcasting.

Fort Myers-Naples has a particularly lively multicast scene, with stations’ dot-twos offering everything from weather to Hispanic entertainment to Dick Van Dyke Show reruns. Comcast is the dominant subscription-TV operator.

WBBH won the 2010 revenue race, according to BIA/ Kelsey, its $27.5 million ahead of WINK’s $24.5 million. WINK took the unique step of dropping its Nielsen ratings, owing primarily to their cost and what Simons calls an antiquated diary system, but he doesn’t necessarily need ratings to tell him how WINK is doing in prime. “CBS has done a great job programming prime the last couple years,” Simons says. “They’ve taken some chances and made the right strategic moves.”

Located between Tampa and Miami on Florida’s southwestern coast, Fort Myers-Naples’ major employers include Lee Memorial Health and the school systems; general managers say the region does not have the giant corporations or manufacturing facilities whose presence makes other cities company towns. Particularly active hurricane seasons in 2004-2005, coupled with the foreclosures, pushed people out of the region. But the local TV execs say folks are starting to return, drawn to the beach, the climate, bustling shopping and restaurants, and thus far, a blessedly uneventful hurricane season.

“It’s nice to see the market back in favor and, over time, smoothing out those harsh views,” Kunkler says. “It’s a fabulous growth community for so many reasons.”

With those housing woes mostly ironed out, the glasshalf- full crowd says Fort Myers-Naples offers good value for those in the market for a home. “As the foreclosures have moved through the system, there are some of the best real estate values in America,” Pontius says.

Fort Myers stations are banking on the market sustaining its growth, and are pumping money into their local product. “It’s just been a miserable few years,” Pontius says. “But we’re getting our feet back under us as a market and as a community.”

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Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.