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Market Eye: Grand Plans for Growth

WOOD has long been a darling in Western Michigan and a jewel in the LIN Media crown. But suddenly WWMT is also learning what it feels like to be loved. The station suffered when former owner Freedom was mired in bankruptcy, but it has been enjoying the investment of new owner Sinclair Broadcast Group. Jim Lutton, VP and general manager of WWMT, says the windfall has included a pair of LiveU camera packs, key for newsgathering in the vast, topographically challenging market, and the weekend morning news program that debuted in January.

“We’d been trying to do that for three years,” Lutton says of the new newscast. “Sinclair has been very good about giving us a lot of support for our news product.”

The ratings race is “narrowing” up and down the grid, says Lutton, but WOOD remains strong in its submarket and beyond. WOOD, WZZM and WXMI are based in Grand Rapids, while WWMT is in Kalamazoo; geography means a lot in the multi-hyphenated market. “When it comes to local news, people watch the station in their backyard,” says Janet Mason, president and general manager at WZZM.

Despite its Rust Belt trappings, Grand Rapids- Kalamazoo-Battle Creek is in undeniable growth mode. It was one of just three markets (along with Oklahoma City and Anchorage) to gain three positions in the annual Nielsen market ratings this year, leapfrogging Las Vegas, Birmingham and Harrisburg to land at No. 39. BIA/Kelsey ranks Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo No. 44 in terms of revenue— well ahead of the No. 52 it held last year.

Medical centers are a giant economic anchor in the market, with a new Western Michigan University research hub planned for Kalamazoo in May 2014.

“The marketplace has been steady a while, and we’ve managed to attract new businesses,” says Lutton.

LIN’s holdings in the region are substantial. WOOD is the NBC affiliate, while the company also owns the market’s junior ABC station WOTV (due to the geographical expanse of the DMA, it has two ABC stations) and MyNetwork- TV affiliate WXSP. Sinclair’s WWMT is the CBS affiliate, and it airs The CW on its subchannel. Gannett has the primary ABC outlet, WZZM, while Tribune owns Fox affiliate WXMI. Charter and Comcast are the market’s main subscription TV operators.

WOOD cleans up in the Nielsen diary market; it won total-day ratings in the February sweeps, along with all the news races. But WOOD gets crushed in primetime, which WWMT wins easily. WOOD turns a 2.8 household rating/5.6 share in primetime to a 5.9 /20.6 in late news—just ahead of WWMT’s 5.7/19.9.

Diane Kniowski, VP and general manager at the LIN station trio, says WOOD thrives on its legacy status, a comprehensive effort on breaking news—it’s the only station in the market with five meteorologists, Kniowski notes—and tireless community involvement. “WOOD is the station that takes on big projects,” Kniowski says, citing a clutch of art shows, running races and specials on local figures, including one on late president Gerald Ford.

Grand Rapids sustained historic flooding in April, which was overshadowed in the national news by the bombings in Boston. Mason says WZZM stuck with coverage when much of the competition was in network reports out of Boston. “We felt it was important for a local station to focus on a locally important story,” she says.

WZZM has more than 100,000 Facebook likes, well ahead of WOOD, and Mason says the platform is key for having a “conversation with our customers.” WWMT has expanded its 10 p.m. news on its subchannel to an hour and has Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!— along with The Big Bang Theory on its digital tier—in access. WXMI, with its parent Tribune out of bankruptcy, is growing its news presence, including the addition of weekend morning news in March.

But WOOD has upped its investigative reporting and shows no signs of surrendering the Grand Rapids news crown. “We’re a leader in news and events in the community,” says Kniowski. “We use the station to communicate and connect with people.”

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