ABC, Channel 13 join the winners' circle on election night

November 05, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Forget Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw. Even Bart Simpson was no competition for Peter Jennings on election night as far as Baltimore viewers were concerned. ABC News owned the market and provided ratings coattails so long that WJZ (Channel 13) News was able to ride them to an overwhelming local victory despite a sloppy performance, according to the new overnight ratings services.

The Nielsen and Arbitron meters also showed that Arnold Schwarzenegger was pretty hot, while WMAR (Channel 2) News definitely was not. And the PBS prime-time disaster, "The Finish Line," took MPT (Channels 22 and 67) to a new low in election-night irrelevance.

Overall, it was clear that Baltimore's 957,000 viewers were looking to TV for news Tuesday night. Often during major events such as the debates and political conventions, entertainment shows scheduled to compete with network news coverage generate huge ratings.

While Channel 54 had election-night success with Arnold Schwarzenegger's "The Predator," Fox did not do nearly as well as it had expected here with "The Simpsons" and other high-powered entertainment programs.

The most effective counterprogramming, and the only local challenge to Jennings and ABC News, came from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. when Channel 2 went against network news with Vanna White and Alex Trebek on "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!," respectively. The move resulted in nearly a tie, with ABC winning on Arbitron by a nose and the syndicated game shows taking it by a whisker on Nielsen.

But once prime time started and the networks had projections to make, ABC blew everyone else away. By 8 p.m., ABC News had a 20 rating and 29 share for Channel 13, which means about 186,000 or 29 percent of the homes in Baltimore with TV sets turned on were tuned to ABC.

The nearest competitor, "The Simpsons" on WBFF (Channel 45), had an audience only half as large at 8 p.m. CBS News on Channel 11 and NBC News on Channel 2 also had audiences about half that of ABC News.

Channel 13 had the largest audience throughout prime time, with little or no evidence of channel hopping. ABC's Baltimore audience peaked shortly after 10 p.m. with about 220,000 homes.

It is hard to make a perfectly clean call as to what happened at 11 p.m., when local news was supposed to start.

Channel 13, which was having problems throughout the night in switching back and forth from the network, appeared to get a later start on local news than the other stations here. But it is safe to say that Baltimore viewers overwhelming preferred Channel 13 to Channels 2, 11 or 45.

In fact, according to Arbitron, Channel 13 had an audience larger than the combined audiences for Channels 2 and 11 during the late local news. Channel 13 looked almost as good in the Nielsen survey.

There is no doubt that Channel 13 was the station where local viewers sought their local election news.

As for Channel 45, the election offered a chance to see how the "News at Ten" might do if it were going head-to-head at 11 with the affiliates. Its audience for a special 11 o'clock report was about half as large as the ones for Channels 2 and 11 and one-sixth as large as Channel 13's.

The big loser Tuesday night was MPT (Channels 22 and 67), which fell victim to a bad PBS programming move that took "MacNeil/Lehrer" out of prime time to try a new telecast, "The Finish Line."

The show featured public TV and National Public Radio folks sitting around a studio in Boston talking about the election.

The three-hour show lacked structure, focus and the technical ability even to correctly set audio levels so that the speakers could be heard. It resulted in a combined audience of only about 15,000 homes for Channels 22 and 67, according to Nielsen.

Overall, the Baltimore ratings reflect national viewing patterns, according to preliminary ratings from Nielsen's 28 metered cities. ABC was the most-watched network Tuesday night in those cities, too. Viewership for all news broadcasts was up from the 1988 election-night levels, the ratings show.

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