Baltimore enters new TV era Electronic reading of viewer audience will affect ratings, stoke competition

October 28, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Baltimore television will never be the same. Starting today, the city becomes an overnight metered market for the Arbitron and Nielsen ratings services. And that means the once relatively sleepy world of the nation's 22nd largest TV market, will move into the competitive world of big-time TV.

Baltimore area viewers got their first taste of the new world order for local TV yesterday, with news of Sally Thorner's quarter-of-a-million-dollar move from WMAR (Channel 2) to WJZ (Channel 13) after 10 years at Channel 2's anchor desk.

The changes to come won't all be that dramatic, but as the Thorner move has shown, the meters mean a lot more than daily, electronic measurements of who's watching what on which channel.

But in the end, what probably matters most to viewers is how the meters will affect what they see on local TV.

Some in the industry, like Channel 2 General Manager Arnold J. Kleiner, said that the availability of instant ratings and demographic data from the meters could start driving the decision-making process at local stations. And that will definitely result in the kind of changes that will show up on the screen. Shows ranging from local news to "Oprah" to "Tiny Toons" will be affected by the daily ratings information.

In Dallas, for example, a station using meters to track ratings of newscasts found that a series on killer bees lifted the ratings of its late news during those nights when it ran. On the last three nights of a key ratings period, the station ran three straight "special reports" on killer bees, each sillier than the next. It won the ratings battle. A news executive at the station attributed the win to meters and killer bees.

Locally, the meters also mean that the overwhelming dominance in ratings that WJZ (Channel 13) has seemed to enjoy forever is probably going to end and that independent stations WNUV (Channel 54) and WBFF (Channel 45) are likely to start getting the ratings they say they deserve and more of the $150 million spent annually in Baltimore on TV advertising.

"It's going to shake-up the box," Andre DeVerneil, director of research at Channel 13, said last week.

"It's definitely going to mean change," Steve Marks, general manager of Channel 45, predicted without knowing anything about Ms. Thorner and Channel 13's negotiations at the time.

A ratings meter is not much to look at for all the power of change that comes with it. It's a little black box attached to TVs and VCRs that records when they are in use.

The power is in the instant electronic transmission of that information to a central computer.

Nielsen and Arbitron meters are the technology that make possible the news stories that say, "Overnight ratings showed last night's Presidential debate to be the most watched debate in TV history."

They are a near-instant barometer of audience preferences, and they are used by advertisers and programmers to keep up with a marketplace that changes as fast as information flows through wire and via satellite.

Before the arrival of the meters, Baltimore audiences were measured only six times a year. And the measurement was based on handwritten monthlong logs of viewing kept by the families Nielsen and Arbitron had selected.

There is bias built into any research methodology. And the diaries favored the top-rated station because many of the sample families provided information on seven days of viewing in one day at the end of the week. Such respondents tended to recall only the top-rated shows and the top-rated station, which in Baltimore for several years has been Channel 13.

In many of the 27 cities where meters have been installed, the ratings for the No. 1 station immediately dropped in subsequent audience surveys. Channel 13, itself, expects to lose some of its overwhelming ratings advantage.

"Yes, as the No. 1 station, we'll probably take a hit in the ratings," Marcellus Alexander, general manager of Channel 13, said this week.

Other patterns found from looking at other cities where meters were installed include:

* A drop in ratings for such hits shows as "Oprah" and "Donohue" because viewers incorrectly said they watched the show five days a week when in fact they watched only two or three days of programming.

* A dramatic rise in ratings for independent stations with children's programs airing after school and on Saturday mornings. The reason is parents filling out diaries tend not to accurately list what their children watched.

* A drop in ratings for public television stations. The reason being, just as in real life, people say they watched PBS more than they actually did.

* Overall, independent stations in the last nine markets to get meters since 1989 have shown audience gains of 50 percent to 90 percent in several key time periods, such as prime time. WJZY-TV, an independent station in Charlotte, N.C., the most recent city to get meters, almost doubled its audience between 5 and 7 p.m. after meters were installed.

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