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TV in Smallville

As the only commercial TV station in Alpena, Mich., WBKB-TV faces no over-the-air competition , which isn't too surprising: It's the nation's No. 208 market, out of 210 Nielsen DMAs. The city has only 11,304 residents; the two-county DMA, around 43,000 residents.

The market and the CBS affiliate have felt the nation's economic downturn, but, fortunately, the station's hard times have been recent, not lingering.

"Our business has not been in the same bad cycle as the other industry businesses in our area," says WBKB-TV General Manager Curt Smith. "The DMA has been struggling the past two years just like everyone else, but we haven't seen a [slowdown] in ad dollars until just now."

WBKB-TV didn't always have the market to itself. A translator, broadcasting Fox and UPN, went dark 18 months ago. "Believe it or not, we got a lot of flack for turning it off," says Greg Buzzell, director of engineering for the translator's owner, Rockfleet Broadcasting, even though the signal barely covered the city.

The only other station in town is a PBS outlet, WCML-TV, operated by Central Michigan University.

Smith says 80% of WBKB-TV's revenue comes from national and regional fast-food, soft-drink and gaming clients. The area's largest local employers—Alpena's school system, Alpena General Hospital and Phelps Collins Air National Guard Training Base—don't offer much in the way of advertising.

"Automotive is not a major factor in our market," says Smith. "In the city of Alpena itself, we have three [dealerships]. You have that many in some townships in other markets."

But that's not all bad news, he adds. By not relying on the auto dollar, the local economy is able to avoid the extreme peaks and valleys "when the economy goes soft."

Of course, WBKB-TV also competes for viewers and those national and regional dollars with other TV stations imported by the local Charter cable system. "It's always been a good cable market because of not having off-airs available," says system General Manager Ed Kavanaugh.