Saturday's storm drives snowbound to their TV sets

March 16, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Viewers turned to local TV in record numbers last weekend for snowstorm coverage. And the network affiliates -- WBAL (Channel 11), WJZ (Channel 13) and WMAR (Channel 2) -- responded by scrapping regular shows, offering special reports and, for two of the stations, going wall-to-wall on storm coverage for stretches of up to six hours.

Overall, the percentage of homes using TV Saturday morning was more than double what it usually is. And, at the height of storm coverage at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, the combined audience for the three channels was almost four times as large as normal, with viewers in half a million homes watching local TV news.

"It's hard to make comparisons, because we now have overnight meters [to measure audience]," said Emerson Coleman, Channel director of broadcast operations. "But I can't imagine there was ever a bigger audience in Baltimore for Saturday and Sunday morning TV news than there was this weekend." Officials at Channels 2 and 13 agreed, saying that, according to their calculations, the audiences for TV coverage of blizzards in 1979 and '83 were not nearly as large.

Channel 11, which regularly has a news show on Saturday morning, started out owning the airwaves, as Baltimore viewers woke to a weekend of snow.

By 8 a.m. Saturday, Channel 11 had an 18.9 rating (each rating point equals 9,200 homes) and 39 percent share of all the TV's being watched in the area. That's about triple its normal audience for news. At that point, Channel 11 was already an hour into wall-to-wall storm coverage.

Channel 13, which was running cartoons interrupted by storm updates, had only a 3.7 rating and 8 percent share of the audience from 8 to 8:30. Channel 2 also had a 3.7 rating and 7 share for NBC's "Saturday Today" show. Both are about normal for the two stations.

But at 9 a.m., Channel 13 started its wall-to-wall storm coverage with Richard Sher and Marty Bass anchoring, and by 10 a.m., it was beating Channel 11 by about 10,000 homes.

From 9 a.m. to noon Saturday -- the clearest block of head-to-head competition between the two rivals -- Channel 13 was on in 160,000 homes, while viewers in 130,000 homes watched Channel 11.

The also-ran Saturday was Channel 2, which never went wall-to-wall on the storm and was seen in only about 51,000 homes in the morning.

"I guess we read it wrong," Arnold J. Kleiner, president and general manager of Channel 2, said yesterday of his station's coverage, which featured updates from Horace Holmes and weatherman Norm Lewis. "I guess we should have gone wall-to-wall. I guess people wanted that."

The fierce competition in coverage over the weekend between channels 11 and 13 carried over into a war of words yesterday between the news directors of the two stations.

"This was a serious storm, people needed information, and we gave it to them in a serious way," Channel 11's news director David Roberts said of his station's coverage.

"We didn't use a laugh track like one station," he added, referring to Channel 13's coverage, which was decidedly more breezy and included such special effects as howling winds and laughter when Sher or Bass said something the staff considered funny.

"I'm glad you told me that, because I was going to take the high road here," Gail Bending, news director at Channel 13, said when told of Roberts' comment. "We provided all the storm information in a very straightforward manner . . . more information before anyone else, like the closing of BWI airport.

"Yes, we used special effects. That's part of our personality. It doesn't take away anything from the news. That's our approach. . . . And the viewers seem to have preferred our approach."

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