Affiliate switch in January helps WBAL tie WJZ in newscast ratings This just in ...

March 03, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

There's a new order in Baltimore television.

For nearly two decades, when it came to local news viewing, it was WJZ and then everybody else. But in the wake of the three-way affiliate switch that took place on Jan. 1, WJZ no longer rules exclusively.

In the switch, the station went from being an affiliate of first-place ABC to third-place CBS, and now -- for the first time in 17 years -- WJZ failed to win outright the weeknight, 11 p.m. news race during a sweeps ratings period. It tied with WBAL.

Local stations can get as much as two-thirds of their newscast-related advertising revenue from their 11 p.m. shows. It's the most watched newscast, thus commanding the highest advertising rates -- anywhere from $800 to $1,200 per 30 seconds in Baltimore.

Of the three most important newscasts -- the 5, 6 and 11 p.m. weeknights -- WJZ won only the 6 o'clock newscast outright during the February sweeps, which ended yesterday. But its audience for that newscast was down by about 47,000 homes from last year -- though all local stations suffered losses during their early news as viewers tuned to CNN at dinner time for coverage of the O. J. Simpson trial.

"There's no doubt about it: This is a historically significant change. WJZ used to be legendary in local news -- the way they dominated the competition," said Douglas Gomery, a media economist at the University of Maryland College Park. "I would guess there are a number of factors involved, but for them to now be scrambling for a tie with WBAL at 11 in the wake of the network-affiliate switch says it's definitely a new world in Baltimore television."

WBAL General Manager Phil Stolz agreed. "It certainly is a different landscape at 11 o'clock," he said. The tie between WBAL and WJZ represents the first time since 1978 that WJZ hasn't won the weeknight late news period outright. WBAL, the former CBS affiliate, was helped by a strong prime-time lead-in from its new partner, NBC, which won the February sweeps race.

WJZ General Manager Marcellus Alexander countered by saying: thrilled with our overall ratings performance and very proud of the WJZ staff. Our new partnership with CBS is off to a strong start."

"It stands to reason that the switch to CBS has hurt WJZ at 11," said Steve Barkin, who teaches television news at the University of Maryland College Park. "But I think those ratings are only part of a larger picture of Channel 13 losing its once incredibly powerful hold on the market."

How strong was that hold in its heyday?

Ten years ago, one out of every two sets turned on at 11 p.m. in Baltimore was tuned to WJZ's news. Its audience last month was slightly less than one out of four sets.

The rise of new cable channels, better cable programming and )) the switch from using diaries to Nielsen meters to measure local viewing all contributed to that erosion in viewership for WJZ across the last 10 years. The station's fall from dominance did not happen overnight. In fact, WBAL came close to tying WJZ at 11 p.m. weeknights last February, when WBAL had the Winter Olympics as a lead-in.

But the effect of the switch is suggested by the fact that WJZ is down about 10,000 area homes from November, the last sweeps period when it was the local ABC affiliate. WBAL, meanwhile, is up 20,000 homesfrom November.

The November-to-February comparison is not a perfect one. But it does give an indication of some major changes.

In November, "The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather and Connie Chung," which was then seen on WBAL, was last among the three network newscasts. In February, on its new Baltimore home of WJZ, it is first -- beating both "ABC's World News" with Peter Jennings on WMAR and "The NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw" on WBAL.

"There are not many markets where Dan Rather and Connie Chung are No. 1," said Alexander. Nationally, ABC is first, with NBC second.

Also, "The Late Show With David Letterman" went from finishing second (behind ABC's "Nightline") in November, when it was on WBAL, to first place in February on WJZ.

"When you have something as big as the switch happen, you have to look at who helped who. And we helped CBS enormously," said Jonathan Klein, president of Group W, which owns WJZ.

"How the station did in February is testament to the fact that people in Baltimore tune into 'JZ," said Klein, who served as general manager at WJZ in 1988 and '89.

The ratings back Klein up. In terms of overall performance since the switch, WJZ did best among the three stations.

At 11 p.m., WMAR and WBAL lost viewers who had been tuned to their station for network offerings, but WJZ's news show increased its audience from the one delivered by CBS.

The only prime-time help WJZ got from CBS came in dramatic fashion on the last night of the sweeps survey, when "The Grammy Awards Show" ended on time and delivered a huge audience to local affiliates.

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