Letterman takes his late-night lumps locally

December 15, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

David Letterman rules when it comes to late-night television nationally. But in Baltimore he's still chopped liver.

That's the news from the latest comparison of national and local ratings taken by A. C. Nielsen during the November sweeps audience survey.

Despite his triumph against all late-night competition nationally with his new show on CBS, Letterman ranks last in Baltimore. And that's not the worst of it.

Not only did Ted Koppel, Arsenio Hall and Jay Leno beat Letterman here, but the reality show "COPS" beat him, too. And the very tired reruns of "In Living Color," with which Fox rushed into the breach after Chevy Chase called in sick for the rest of his late-night life, almost topped Letterman as well.

"The Late Show with David Letterman" is doing worse in #F Baltimore than in any other major market city where his show airs live at 11:35 p.m.

How bad is bad?

* For the weeks between Nov. 4 and Dec. 1, ABC's "Nightline," seen locally on WJZ (Channel 13), averaged an 8.09 rating and 21 share. With each ratings point equal to about 9,400 households, that translates to an audience of 76,000 homes in the Baltimore area -- or 21 percent of all the sets in use from 11:35 p.m. to 12:05 a.m.

* From 12:05 a.m. to 12:35 a.m., Nielsen measured the audience for "COPS" on WJZ at a 5.58 rating and 18 share. That's about 52,000 TV households.

* Meanwhile, for the full hour from 11:35 p.m. to 12:35 a.m., "Arsenio Hall," which airs on WBAL (Channel 11), had a 5.87 rating and 17 share. That's 55,000 homes.

* And Jay Leno's "Tonight" show had a 4.66 share and 13 percent share of the available audience, for about 44,000 homes.

* Letterman logged in with a 3.81 rating and 11 percent of the available audience on WNUV (Channel 54). That means Letterman has an audience here of only 36,000 homes -- less than half the audience for "Nightline."

By way of comparison, infomercials in the same time slot were often seen in 20,000 homes.

Nationally, Letterman beats everybody with a 5.5 rating and an 18 share of the available audience. That's about 5.2 million homes (a national ratings point equals 940,000 households). His closest competition is from "Nightline," which has a 5.0 rating and 15 share. Leno's "Tonight" show weighs in with a 4.4. rating and 13 share.

Because Arsenio Hall is syndicated and runs at different time periods in different cities, his ratings are harder to calculate. But he's performing at about a 2.3 rating overall. So, why is Baltimore such bad news for Letterman?

"There are two things you have to take into consideration when looking for that answer," says Dr. Neil Alperstein, who teaches advertising and pop culture at Loyola College. "You have to look at the show itself and then Baltimore's demographics."

The most obvious factor is where the show airs in Baltimore -- on an independent station instead of the CBS affiliate. That hurts because of a smaller lead-in audience and lack of promotion with CBS's local viewers.

But that doesn't hurt enough to account for the awful ratings Letterman posted in November.

In terms of Baltimore demographics, the most obvious factor involves Baltimore having the largest percentage of African-American viewers -- 24 percent -- of any major TV market. Letterman does not do well with African-American viewers.

It's no coincidence that CBS had the hardest time with local affiliates in Baltimore, Washington, Atlanta and Detroit when it tried to get stations to carry Letterman's new show. Those are among the TV markets with the largest percentage of African-American viewers.

But Alperstein believes you have to dig deeper into Letterman's show and Baltimore's demographic makeup to explain what's really going on.

For example, he says, advertisers have identified a "lifestyle cluster called the Urban Gold Coaster."

The characteristics of the Urban Gold Coaster, Alperstein says, are a preference for " 'New York' magazine, fresh chicken and David Letterman," among other things

"This is not to suggest that we don't have Gold Coasters in Baltimore, because we do . . . But how many of them? Knowing that number is the kind of variable that you would have to factor in," he says.

It appears that no local advertising agencies have done the kind of study of Urban Gold Coasters that could provide such a number -- though most analysts say they'd troll the Potomac before the Patapsco if they were looking for a large school of such upscale consumers.

Alperstein's point is that if Letterman is reaching the kinds of "quality" viewers here that he is elsewhere, it probably doesn't matter that he is failing to attract a mass audience.

Letterman and his staff declined to comment on their performance in Baltimore, instead referring questions to Anthony Malara, president for affiliate relations at CBS.

Here's where the news gets better for Letterman in Baltimore.

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