Channels 13, 11 in dead heat at 11 p.m.

March 05, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television critic

The tightest, local news ratings duel in 15 years ended with both WJZ (Channel 13) and WBAL (Channel 11) claiming victory yesterday for the 11 o'clock newscast in the important February sweeps period.

And both have valid claims.

According to the actual Nielsen numbers, Channel 13 earned slightly higher ratings for its late-night news Mondays through Fridays. But, by including the 11 o'clock weekend newscasts in the mix, Channel 11 outscored Channel 13 -- the station that dominated Baltimore TV news through the 1980s.

Amid all the claims of winning, there was a loser, too. Local TV lost some of its innocence in the heat of the battle.

Viewers saw weather reports wildly hyped last week on both stations and on WMAR (Channel 2). At least one network show was pre- empted in efforts to get a better lead-in for the news on Channel 13. Newscasts were filled with soft features linked to prime-time celebrity interviews and miniseries.

Both sides pulled programming ploys not seen in this market before. Five times during the past week Channel 13 started its news at 10:58:30 p.m. On Wednesday night, Channel 11 did the same. Both gaveup thousands of dollars in advertising time trying to hook viewers into their newscast before they had a chance to sample the other guy's.

"It was wild . . . and we won," Channel 11 News Director David Roberts said over the phone as his newsroom celebrated with a catered meal and non-alcoholic toasts to their newfound ratings muscle.

"It was a slim victory . . . but we are definitely claiming the victory," said Marcellus Alexander, general manager of Channel 13. He said congratulations were being extended to his staff, too, yesterday, but he characterized the mood at Channel 13 as one of "quiet determination."

In terms of the actual Nielsen numbers for late-news during weeknights, Channel 13 had a 12.6 rating and 24 share, while Channel 11 had a 12.5 rating and 24 share. (Each ratings point equals 9,200 Baltimore area homes.) Channel 2 trailed with a 10.1 rating and 19 share. Although Channel 13 can claim a victory, it's a far cry from a year ago when it doubled Channel 11's weeknight audience.

When the actual ratings book is published, in all likelihood it will report both Channels 11 and 13 with a 13 rating and 24 share, since tenths are rounded. So, Channel 11 can claim a tie.

Including late-night Saturday and Sunday newscasts, Channel 11 winswith a 12.9 rating and 25 share compared to Channel 13's 12.2 rating and 23 share. Channel 2 again has a 10.1 rating and 19 share.

Both sides acknowledged using programming stunts to win in the last two weeks.

When asked if last Friday's non-storm would have been reported with such intensity had it not been a sweeps period, Alexander said, "You may be right, but . . . weather and particularly snow, is extremely important to Baltimore viewers."

Alexander also said Channel 13 pre-empted ABC's "Civil Wars" Tuesday and replaced it with reruns of "Roseanne" and "Night Court" in hopes of getting a bigger lead-in audience for its late news. And it worked: More people watched the reruns than usually watch "Civil Wars. Which demonstrates, Alexander said, "that we served our viewers and helped out news."

As for starting the news early, Alexander objected to calling it a stunt. "I'd call it seamless programming," he said.

Both sides said the battle will become more intense in coming months.

"Winning at 11 is only the start of our quest," Roberts said. "Our goal now is to win everywhere."

"I look at it this way," Alexander said, "This is only the top of the first inning in a long baseball game."

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