WJZ sinks to new low in bid to land on top in ratings

March 04, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Why was WJZ-TV reporter Ron Matz interviewing a prostitute identified as Mistress Marie in the middle of Channel 13's late news Wednesday?

It didn't have anything to do with responsible TV journalism.

Matz was quoting Mistress Marie's hourly rates, and letting her show off her collection of whips, because Wednesday was the last night of the February sweeps and Channel 13 was in a ratings dogfight with WBAL-TV (Channel 11).

Well, Channel 13's "Eyewitness News" won the 11 o'clock weeknight battle by a whisker, according to A. C. Nielsen overnight ratings. But with its "special assignment" report on sadomasochism in Baltimore, the station hit a new low in editorial judgment for Baltimore TV news. The decline in standards at WJZ suggested by "Love Struck" is a bigger story than any told by ratings figures.

WJZ General Manager Marcellus Alexander defends "Love Struck." "Through the special assignment reports that we do, we choose a variety of topics that we feel are of interest," he said yesterday. "This is one we felt would be of interest."

Anchorman Al Sanders' attempt to justify it to viewers Wednesday night went like this: "There's a lot of talk around town about a form of sexual expression known as sado-masochism. The Night Team's Ron Matz reports that S&M is going from the underground to the mainstream. But we must warn you: Parts of this story may be offensive to some viewers."

The report featured a psychologist, two prostitutes, a man who ran a leather bar, a woman who ran "erotic mind control seminars," and a man who identified himself as her "slave" (and husband). It ran 3 minutes and 41 seconds -- 14 percent of the newscast.

As bad as the report was, it finished second in sleaze to the ad WJZ aired Tuesday and Wednesday promoting it. This featured a woman in a low-cut leather bra handcuffing a man, flexing her whip and then whipping the man's back. The camera offered viewers a tight shot of the woman's breasts with the whip held in front of them.

Mr. Alexander denied that "Love Struck" or the promotion for it was unusual for Baltimore, saying: "When you look at the types of special assignment reports that we do and other stations do, there's a range. And I don't think that this one was noticeably outside of the range of what this market has used."

He cited competitors' reports on mud wrestling, better sex in marriage, X-rated videos, soap opera sex scenes and exotic dancers -- all of which aired during recent sweeps ratings periods -- as comparable.

The one competitor who was willing to go on the record disagreed.

"I don't want to get into a verbal duel with 'JZ. But I think you can see the difference between them and us by what we ran and they ran Wednesday night as a special report," says WBAL news director David Roberts. WBAL featured an investigation by Jayne Miller into a charity scam.

Mr. Alexander says he received "a scattering of calls" complaining about the report. "It was nothing significant, fewer than 10 I'd say." His primary concern now "is that a tremendous victory for our station will be diminished by what you see to be part of the story."

In terms of numbers, February gave all local TV news operations some victories.

* WJZ's victory in late news was impressive. It finished with a weeknight average of a 15.1 rating and 27 share, compared with 14.6 and 27 share for Channel 11. Each ratings point equals about 9,300 homes. What makes the win so impressive is WBAL had the huge Olympics lead-in on 10 of the 20 weeknights, and WJZ still won.

* The bad ratings news for WJZ comes at 5 p.m., where it earned only an 11 rating and 19 share for Sally Thorner's newscast. This compared with a 17 rating and 31 share for WMAR-TV (Channel 2).

WMAR's victory is in how handily it beat back the challenge at 5. It lost only about 28,000 homes from the audience it had last February.

But WMAR lost audience at every other newscast. It now finishes last in morning, noon and late news.

* WBAL's victory is in its continued growth in each news period weeknights and its power on weekends -- especially with its Saturday and Sunday morning broadcasts. On a seven-day basis, WBAL's late news beat WJZ's by a whisker.

The bad news is that WBAL is not a contender in early news periods. It has no news at 5 and finishes last in the three-way race at 6. And the station should have held more of the lead-in from the Olympics at 11.

* WBFF-TV (Channel 45) has a ratings winner with its 10 o'clock news. It finished with an 8.1 rating and a 12 share last month, up significantly from the 5 rating and 8 share it had in February 1993.

The new numbers make WBFF's "News at Ten" one of the highest-rated 10 o'clock newscasts in the country, and it accomplished that against Olympics competition on 10 of the 20 weeknights in February.

"These numbers are great. They catapult us to a new level," said WBFF program director Mike Schroeder.

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