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A Tale of Three Cities

Local broadcasters often have to attend to two cities, which can divide the attention of their news and sales forces. But in Nielsen's 39th-largest TV market, stations must focus on three very different urban centers.

Grand Rapids is a manufacturing hub for office furniture and auto supplies and, increasingly, a center for medical and technology. Kalamazoo houses Western Michigan University's 30,000 students; Battle Creek, the corporate headquarters of Kellogg Co.

Broadcasters focus much local news on their swath of the market. Freedom Broadcasting's CBS affiliate WWMT is based in Kalamazoo, while LIN Television-owned NBC affiliate WOOD and Tribune's Fox outfit WXMI call Grand Rapids home. Gannett-owned ABC affiliate WZZM is also in Grand Rapids, but, because of multiple broadcast licenses, the market actually has two ABC affiliates: WZZM and LIN's WOTV Battle Creek. (WOTV simulcasts WOOD's news.) Both are available over-the-air and on cable, presenting a competitive conundrum.

“You have to think twice about preempting or interrupting a program,” says WZZM General Manager Janet Mason. “If the competition doesn't do the same, we could lose viewers. That is not a dynamic most stations have to consider.”

Broadcasters grossed $113.7 million last year, according to BIA Financial, up from $100.4 million in 2003. WOOD was the top grosser, with $33 million. Station managers say the newer industries, such as technology and medical, insulate the market from downturns in automotive. “We have some diversity, and that helps,” says WWMT General Manager Tom Long. “This is a great part of Michigan to be in.”

The market has more nuances: LIN has a triopoly with UPN affiliate WXSP, which airs Detroit Pistons and Red Wings games and Big Ten college sports. There is no dedicated WB affiliate, so The WB shows air on the Pax station.

The news race is tight. WOOD won early-evening and late news in May; stations will not learn November results until Nielsen releases its diaries later this month. Grand Rapids is one of just two markets in the top 50 that hasn't deployed Nielsen's set-top meters to measure daily ratings. The overnight ratings help stations track performance, but the diary data is still the currency for ad sales. Managers say the meters' cost—as much as $40,000 a month—is hard to justify. Says Long, “From a business perspective, I don't think the increase in the validity of the ratings is sufficient.”

Weather presents another challenge for the market. If a tornado touches down in Battle Creek and the stations go to news coverage, disgruntled viewers from other areas—where skies may be clear—call to complain.