It's a fundamental law of the media universe: the worse the weather, the better the audience for television news. So far, the Blizzard of '96 is no exception.
Sunday morning at 10 a.m., for example, when all three network affiliates were head-to-head with snow coverage, televisions in 411,000 Baltimore area homes were tuned to the three newscasts. That's 42 percent of all the homes in the market.
By way of comparison, the combined audience for all the broadcast stations and cable channels in Baltimore on a typical Sunday is only about 304,000 homes, according to A.C. Nielsen.
"What the ratings say is that the blizzard is a huge event with gigantic impact, right up there with the Super Bowl in terms of people watching television," said Sharon Walz, research director for WBAL (Channel 11).
"The ratings show that snow brings people to their sets," said Liz Chuday, a spokeswoman for WJZ (Channel 13).
The audience increased on Sunday to the point where viewers in two out of every three homes watched the late news on either WBAL, WJZ (Channel 13), WMAR (Channel 2) or WBFF (Channel 45) before going to bed. The combined audience was about 657,000 homes. And most of those viewers were back in front of their TVs Monday morning.
From 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday -- a time when all three network affiliates went with extended local coverage of the storm -- the audience was about 403,000 homes just for WJZ, WBAL and WMAR. On a normal Monday at that time, the combined audience for all stations is about 264,000 homes.
By 11 p.m. Monday, viewing levels had dropped toward more normal viewing levels.
As to which station was the most watched during the storm, it's generally been a battle between WBAL and WJZ.
On Sunday, more viewers were watching WBAL than were watching WJZ. Taking the 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. time period as a representative snapshot, WBAL had about 25,000 more homes than WJZ. The margin was about the same at 11 p.m. Sunday night.
On Monday, though, the audience shifted decisively to WJZ, which had the most viewers for its newscasts and specials from early morning straight through its 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts. At 5 p.m., WJZ had an audience of 210,000 homes -- almost 90,000 homes more than WBAL or WMAR.