Breezy tone of morning news masks a serious battle for ratings and ad revenue


December 05, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

It's a world of macaroni-and-bologna school lunch menus, last night's news, traffic reports from people with names like "Detour Dave," and "live" on-location interviews with folks who collect dolls or put up holiday decorations.

It's chatterbox talk at the anchor desk between Marty Bass and Don Scott and stories read right out of the newspaper between sips of coffee from the always-present white, plastic foam cups.

It is, in short, the world of early morning local news, which starts before most people are out of bed -- before Nielsen even begins counting how many TV sets are turned on.

And despite its light, bright and sometimes silly demeanor, it's one of the most hotly contested and lucrative media games in town.

"It's the next big battlefield," said Tom Hauff, news director at WBAL-TV ( Channel 11). "Actually, it already is."

The battle was joined in earnest this fall when all three network affiliates -- WJZ-TV (Channel 13), WMAR-TV (Channel 2) and Channel 11 -- dramatically expanded their morning news shows. Channels 2 and 13 now have 90 minutes each weekday morning starting at 5:30; Channel 11 offers an hour starting at 6.

That's four hours of locally produced news programming each morning -- double the amount at this time last year. Coming at a time when network news divisions are cutting back right and left, those are significant numbers.

The reason for the new emphasis on local morning newscasts also can be found in numbers. One set shows a change in lifestyle: Viewers in Baltimore and elsewhere around the country are going to bed and getting up earlier. Five years ago, only 12 percent of all local TV sets were in use between 6 and 7 weekday mornings. That number -- commonly referred to as the HUT (homes using TV) level -- has now climbed to 17 percent, which translates to about 165,000 TV homes. HUT levels for the 11 p.m. news have shown a corresponding drop over the last five years.

Why the shift in habits? Andre DeVerneil, research director at Channel 13, believes it's due, at least in part, to the proliferation of news and information channels on broadcast and cable TV. In other words, "There's no longer the compulsion . . . to stay up to get the news and especially the weather for the next morning," he says.

Climbing higher along with the growing morning audience is another set of numbers -- those measured in dollars and cents. Channel 13, which currently overwhelms the competition with more than half of all TV sets tuned to its signal (about 96,000 TV households) each morning, can earn as much as $550 for 30 seconds of commercial time in its show, according to broadcast executives and media buyers. There are as many as 40 such slots available in each show, and Channel 13 is generally 80 percent to 90 percent sold out each day.

Time for sale

Because TV ad rates vary so widely due to such factors as the purchase number and placement, direct comparisons are impossible. But Channels 11 and 2, which according to the latest ratings have about one-fifth the morning audience of Channel 13, charge an estimated 20 percent to 25 percent of what Channel 13 does for ads. And neither's morning show is 80 percent to 90 percent sold.

But Channels 2 and 11 are relative newcomers to the morning game compared to Channel 13, which has been at it for nearly 10 years.

Channel 2 entered the morning race three years ago with a half-hour program starting at 6:30. It expanded to 90 minutes and a 5:30 start in September when Horace Holmes was teamed with Rudy Miller.

Channel 11 weighed in with a half-hour show at 6 a.m. in 1990, and expanded to an hour in August. Its lineup features anchor Liz O'Neill and weatherman John Collins.

Everybody's research shows that Baltimore viewers like tradition, and Channel 13 is the one that has it. Half of the original anchor team from 10 years ago, Marty Bass, is still in place. The other half, Oprah Winfrey, has moved on, replaced by Don Scott, another longtime WJZ staffer.

In his office at the station, Bass has a picture of him and Winfrey on the set. "That's when she was thin and I had hair," the 38-year-old Bass said during a recent interview.

One of the ways the show has held on to its audience, he noted, "is by being like we're sitting around a country store and just talking."

When one looks behind the scenes, however, it is evident that success is a lot more complicated and tightly formatted than that. But Bass is right about "just talking." And the style of that talk does a lot to give the show its unique sensibility: It feels like a breezy, morning drive-time radio show translated to TV.

"Boy, am I NyQuilled out or what?" Bass opened a recent show by asking Scott. "I have a coooolllld. How are you feeling?"

Before Scott could answer, Bass was off on another homey tangent. "Tried the old whiskey trick on the kid last night. Yeah, kid's cutting teeth. Whew, is that a trip. . . ."

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