Stations play the numbers game Ratings: Varying interpretations allow Channels 2, 11 and 13 to claim victory.

On the Air

December 07, 1997|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

November's sweeps-month ratings contained some good news for just about everybody when it comes to local news.

WBAL, Channel 11, made the loudest noise, claiming top numbers for all three of its weekday evening news broadcasts (5 p.m., 6 p.m. and 11 p.m.) -- an accomplishment it's been trumpeting endlessly in promotional spots that began airing almost immediately after the ratings period ended Nov. 26.

WJZ, Channel 13, continued to trounce the competition during the day, better than doubling WBAL's numbers at noon and beating it by nearly four rating points at 6 a.m. (each rating point equals about 9,900 households).

Even the new management at WMAR, Channel 2, where general manager Steven J. Gigliotti is just entering his second year on the job, could put a positive spin on things. Despite numbers that are uniformly down from a year ago (with decreases ranging from 0.2 to 0.9 ratings points), station managers see hope in the ratings for their 11 a.m. news show, where viewership has increased steadily since its July 1997 debut. In fact, WMAR's ratings at 11 a.m. actually beat WBAL's at noon; WMAR had 3.8 to WBAL's 3.7.

WMAR is the only station airing news at 11 a.m. Both WBAL and WJZ broadcast the news at noon.

But even more telling, as far as Gigliotti is concerned, are the numbers at 5 p.m., where the share -- the percentage of the viewing audience tuned to WMAR -- increased by 2 percent from the previous month.

"The changes we have made at the station are starting to have an effect, even without a large amount of promotion," Gigliotti says. "The audience is finding us, and they are watching us. We've become an alternative to what had been the tradition."

The battle royal, however, continues to rage between Channels 11 and 13, both of which claim dominance and can spin the numbers to prove it.

WJZ, long Baltimore's dominant station, says it has the best news ratings overall, an average audience of 87,000 households for its newscasts, compared with 72,000 for WBAL and 41,000 for WMAR. It also insists it has the No. 1 news at 11 p.m., pointing to ratings that include weekend broadcasts. By that measure, WJZ earned an 11.7 rating, compared with 11.3 for WBAL.

"Eleven o'clock is a huge victory for us," says WJZ news director Gail Bending. "I'm disappointed that we didn't win at 5 and 6, but I can understand the big challenge we're up against with the Jerry Springer and Oprah growth." Both high-rated talk shows lead in to WBAL's 5 p.m. news.

Both Bending and Marcellus Alexander, WJZ's vice president and general manager, downplay WBAL's claim of victory at 11, saying the time period is a seven-day-a-week competition. "When you buy advertising on the 11 o'clock news, you buy seven days," Bending says.

Nonsense, says Phil Stolz, vice president and general manager at WBAL. He says WBAL's 11 p.m. newscast is tops because it wins the weekday competition (with a 12.3 rating, compared with 11.4 for WJZ), when the stations pit their top talent against one another.

"It's the main anchor teams vs. the main anchor teams, that's what we're talking about," says Stolz. "It's a question of who won the big shows."

Besides, he says, the real victory came at 6 p.m., where WBAL won for the first time since 1978.

"That's the one we had our sights set on," says Stolz. "To win all three in November is a great testimony to the hard work that is being done in this newsroom."

WJZ's Alexander says that the loss at 6 p.m. is hard to take. "It was a tight race, and I accept no excuses and offer none," he says.

The sweeps-month ratings game is a high-stakes competition for TV stations, since these are the numbers used in setting advertising rates; thus, the higher the ratings, the greater the revenue.

Still, the different methods used for interpreting the numbers can leave your head spinning, especially when the methods are altered to suit a station's needs. For example, while Stolz says this is WBAL's first 6 p.m. victory since 1978, it's not the first time management there has claimed victory. When the ratings for July 1996 came out, WBAL used the Monday-Saturday numbers, claiming those were the six days in which all three stations competed head-to-head.

WJZ, however, countered that its Monday-Friday numbers were better than WBAL's, which they were.

Rerun heaven

Cable TV customers in Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties are getting themselves an early Christmas present. They're being welcomed to TV Land.

Beginning Saturday, Comcast customers will begin receiving Nick-at-Nite's TV Land, the closest thing to rerun heaven on Earth. With offerings that range from "The Addams Family" to "Gunsmoke," "Cannon" to "H.R. Pufnstuf," TV Land is a good argument for keeping the tube on all day.

Comcast customers in upgrade areas of Baltimore and Howard counties (call Comcast if you're not sure) will be able to watch TV Land on Channel 60, while customers throughout Harford County will want to tune to Channel 57.

Pub Date: 12/07/97

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