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'Open' Season

Anniversaries abound in the Flint DMA. General Motors celebrates its 100th anniversary with a July parade in downtown Flint, showcasing GM cars over the years, this month's Buick Open golf tournament turns 50, and market leader WJRT is 50 as well.

WJRT has numerous reasons to celebrate. The ABC O&O grabbed the total-day ratings crown in February, and its 9 household rating/27 share in late news nipped CBS-affiliate WNEM's 8/25. Three years after launching an hour news at 4 p.m., WJRT President/General Manager Tom Bryson says the newscast finished in a virtual tie with timeslot titan Oprah Winfrey. The program was hatched after a succession of underperforming syndicated shows. “We decided the future of local TV stations has to be local—news, weather, sports,” says Bryson.

Everyone's eagerly awaiting the start of the golf tournament June 23. After skipping last year's event as his wife was giving birth, Tiger Woods is bringing his “A game” to town this year. WNEM will show the action, and WJRT will air half hour specials nightly, culminating in an hour on the tourney's final day. “It's a huge event for us,” says Bryson.

But amid all the celebration, the Flint-Saginaw-Bay City economy is dismal. While the DMA is Nielsen's 66th largest, it ranks just 90th in revenue. Flint has lost some 70,000 automotive industry jobs in the last 25 years, and its unemployment rate stands at 9%.

Like other markets with manufacturing pasts, Flint is trying to diversify, into industries like education and biofuel production. With an aging population, healthcare is booming too. “There's lots of competition to be people's hospital of choice,” says WNEM VP/General Manager Al Blinke.

As a tri-city market, station managers say the greater DMA is unfairly clouded by Flint's woes. Midland, the home of Dow Chemical, is prosperous, and Bay City, near Saginaw Bay, is a growing tourist destination. “There are a lot of great things about the area, but people still perceive it as Roger and Me,” says Blinke, referring to Michael Moore's bleak 1989 documentary about the auto industry's exodus from Flint.

The market is suddenly a hotspot for second-tier professional sports. Backed by Dow, the Great Lakes Loons minor league baseball club is into its second season, the Flint Generals compete in minor-league hockey, and the Saginaw Sting began playing indoor football in March. In a case of art (or at least a Will Ferrell movie) imitating life, the comedy Semi-Pro follows the fictional Flint Tropics basketball squad. Partially shot in Flint, the film comes out on DVD June 3.

The market brought in $46.6 million last year. WJRT led with $17.3 million, according to BIA Financial, ahead of WNEM's $13.8 million. Other players include Sinclair's Fox outlet WSMH and the Barrington duopoly—NBC affiliate WEYI and the CW outlet WBSF. Rival station executives say WEYI recently laid off as many as 15 people, including management, talent and producers. WEYI did not return calls.

WJRT may hold the news crown, but it's hardly a runaway. WNEM tied WJRT in February's evening news battle with a 14/27 at 6. WNEM produces the 10 p.m. news for WSMH, and just launched a 4 p.m. newscast on its MyNetworkTV affiliate, which airs on a digital channel. “We continue to do the best news in town,” believes Blinke.

Michael Malone
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.