Channels 11, 13 fight to be No. 1

February 25, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

February's TV sweeps have ushered in an intense news ratings war not seen locally since the 1970s. At stake are millions of dollars of advertising revenue for two Baltimore stations.

CBS-affiliate WBAL (Channel 11), which only a year ago was considered by some as an also-ran, and the once-invincible, ABC affiliate WJZ (Channel 13) are locked in a dogfight. The battleground is the 11 o'clock news, a station's most lucrative newscast. In one corner, it's Rod Daniels, Carol Costello and the Channel 11 news team. From the other side of TV Hill, Al Sanders, Denise Koch and the "Eyewitness News" team from Channel 13.

There's more than just a sea change in the power dynamics of local TV at stake. Money is the issue -- as much as $6 million may rest on the outcome of a sweeps month like February, which determines advertising rates throughout the year.

The very notion of TV news in Baltimore is already changing, as both stations regularly lead February newscasts with extended reports tied to entertainment programs -- like the miniseries "Queen" or Oprah Winfrey's interview with Michael Jackson -- in hopes of scoring higher ratings.

"This is about as close as it gets in the ratings," said Emerson Coleman, Channel 11's director of broadcast operations. "It's a real fight. It's going to come down to the final days."

As of yesterday -- through 14 of the 20 weeknights of the important February sweeps ratings period -- Nielsen had Channel 11 and Channel 13 in a dead heat, each with a 13.0 rating and 25 share (a ratings point equals 9,200 homes) for its late news. WMAR (Channel 2) trailed with a 9.9 rating and 19 share.

Last year at this time, Channel 13 led Channel 11 with a 14 rating and 34 share vs. a 9 rating and 22 share. In February 1991, Channel 13 had a 16 rating and a 37 share vs. a 7 rating and 16 share for Channel 11.

"The race has tightened," Channel 13 General Manager Marcellus Alexander said.

But Alexander attributed the rise of Channel 11 to factors other than its improved performance.

And, he said his station's decline in the ratings is not a result of Baltimore viewers liking "Eyewitness News" any less than they did during Channel 13's total dominance through the 1980s.

Alexander said Channel 11's new ratings muscle at 11 o'clock is the result of an improved performance by CBS in prime time, providing a bigger audience lead-in for its Baltimore affiliate as well as the arrival of overnight meters last fall.

In November, Nielsen went from measuring audiences on the basis of diaries filled out by hand to using meters that electronically measure what channel TV sets are tuned to. Since then, a pattern emerged around the country of dominant stations, like 13, getting lower ratings.

"The purpose of meters is to accurately report what people are really watching," Channel 11 News Director David Roberts said in response to Alexander. "And the meters say that WJZ is not the dominant station that they would have people believe they are. That's the new reality. . . . We're on top with them at 11, and we're going to be pouring it on to win."

Roberts, who has injected new life into Channel 11's news operation since his arrival last year, now posts overnight ratings in the newsroom each morning along with notes urging his troops to beat Channel 13.

The potential money is serious.

It's impossible to nail down an exact dollar amount for any newscast, because market rates are set by the dynamic of all the stations acting and reacting. But with more people with more disposable income watching the late news, advertising at that XTC time of night is higher than any other newscast.

The current rate for 30 seconds of ad time during the late news in Baltimore varies from $600 to $2,000 depending on availability. There are 15 30-second spots during the half-hour at Channel 13 and 17 slots at Channels 2 and 11, which have extended their newscasts to 35 minutes to accommodate additional advertising.

The No. 1 station -- if it also has the best demographics as Channel 13 does -- gets to charge in the $2,000 range instead of at the $600 end.

Multiply that difference by as much as 16 or 17 spots each night and, then, that figure by 261 weeknights a year, and you get a sense of the ultimate potential for profit a change in market position can generate -- if you can also get good demographics with it.

Both stations say their newscasts are better because of the intense competition. And watching late news in Baltimore has become more fun.

But there are larger questions about how much story choice should be driven by entertainment programs that precede the news.

It's time to start thinking about such issues, because the competition is only going to intensify, the combatants say.

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