Methods make ratings madness Who's on first?Among local TV news outlets, 'most-watched' depends on who's counting.

March 06, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Can two local television stations each have Baltimore's most-watched newscasts?

Common sense would say no. But the world of local television news operates under its own peculiar rules of logic, and Nielsen Media Research -- the master of that universe -- says it can happen. It all depends on what measurement you use.

As viewers of WBAL (Channel 11) and WJZ (Channel 13) might have noticed, both stations have been calling themselves Baltimore's most-watched news station on-air at the end of their newscasts for months. There was hope that the February sweeps ratings period would bring some clarity, if not resolution, to the matter.

But that has not happened. After a month of newscasts hyped by "special reports" on soap opera stars, multi-part interviews with talk-show hosts and hundreds of thousands of extra dollars spent on advertising and promotion, both WBAL and WJZ continue to call themselves Baltimore's most-watched news operations.

"We are the most-watched station in local news," says Phil Stolz, WBAL vice president and general manager. "And, I hope somewhere in the story is the real story that WJZ got their butts beat at 11 o'clock, the most important newscast in the market."

Gail Bending, the news director at WJZ (Channel 13), acknowledged that WJZ got beat by WBAL at 11 p.m. during February, but points out that WJZ won in the early morning, noon and 6 p.m. weekday newscasts, while tying WBAL in early news at 5 p.m.

"When you add up all the newscasts and take the average, we are still the most- watched station in local news," Ms. Bending says.

"We are always up front and honest with our viewers," says Marcellus Alexander, vice president and general manager of WJZ. "We promote our station with integrity. Other stations can claim what they choose, but our viewers know we are the station they can trust."

For the record, in February, WBAL's late news was watched in 126,000 area homes, while WJZ's was seen in 105,000 homes each night, according to Nielsen figures. WMAR's audience for late news was 93,000 homes, while WBFF's "News at Ten" had an audience of 72,000 homes.

WBAL was helped at 11 p.m. by the lead-in of NBC's successful prime-time programming, while WJZ was hurt by its CBS lead-in. In fact, WJZ improved on the lead-in it received from CBS, while WBAL lost audience, which suggests that viewers went out of their way to switch to WJZ.

The other big news for WBAL was at 5 where its newcast, which is not yet 1 year old, beat WJZ's by one-tenth of a ratings point with a 9.8 to a 9.7 rating (each ratings point equals about 9,803 area homes). WMAR, which had once seemed to own the time period, slipped to a 7.4 rating. In the final Nielsen "book," which records these numbers for advertisers' use, WBAL and WJZ will be listed as having tied with a 10 rating, because tenths of ratings point are rounded off.

Again, lead-in was a big factor, with WBAL's "Oprah" proving to still have considerable ratings oomph when it comes to Baltimore. "I think the market is still shaking out from the affiliate switch, and the story both at 5 and 11 is one station has gotten a break because of their lead-in programming, while the other is suffering because of lead-in," says Joe Lewin, WMAR's vice president and general manager. "As for us, we will continue to improve. Beyond that, what can I say? I wish we were No. 1 and I'm confident we will be. But, at this time, we're not."

Which brings us back to how WJZ and WBAL can both claim they are No. 1.

The answer is that they use different measurements. WJZ takes the average quarter-hour audience for all of its newscasts, according to Chris Mecchi, research director. WBAL, meanwhile, commissioned Nielsen to do a special study of cumulative audience, according to Sharon Walz, its research director.

Quarter-hour measures those viewers who watched for at least 15 minutes. WJZ counts them for each newscast and then divides by the number of newscasts. Under that system, WJZ averages about 21,000 more viewers per newscast.

Cumulative is a measurement of those who watched for at least five minutes. Nielsen added up all those viewers for WBAL newscasts vs. WJZ's, and found WBAL had about 50,000 more.

Each side says theirs is the best measure.

"We play by the rules and go by the book," says Mr. Alexander. "We don't commission special reports in order to find a favorable marketing line."

Mr. Stolz says, "We have more hours of news and more viewers. We simply used the method, which would show our cumulative audience is larger than theirs."

"As far as we can determine both sides are accurately sourcing their claims," says John A. Loftus, vice president of communications for Nielsen Media Research, which counts both stations as clients. "We don't see a problem in Baltimore."

Except that viewers might be just a little confused.

Pub Date: 3/06/96

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