Ratings rosy for WJZ news TV: Channel 13 beat other stations in four of five daily news slots, though rival WBAL was often close behind.

December 02, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

The continual tug-of-war for local ratings supremacy swung decidedly in favor of WJZ, Channel 13, last month, as the folks at Eyewitness News finished first in four of the five daily news slots and in a virtual tie for the fifth with rival WBAL, Channel 11.

For the November sweeps, WJZ finished on top at 6 a.m., noon, 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. At 5 p.m., the two stations had almost identical numbers, with WBAL garnering a 9.31 rating, WJZ a 9.26. Each ratings point equals about 10,000 viewing households, meaning WBAL and WJZ were separated by an estimated 500 households in a market of nearly 1 million.

WJZ's surge comes at what could prove a pivotal time for the two stations, as both are losing their top men. WJZ's Marcellus Alexander has left the station to assume the top post at Philadelphia's KYW, while WBAL's Phil Stolz has moved on to Hearst- Argyle's corporate offices in New York.

The latest numbers should provide a nice welcome for WJZ's new vice president and general manager, Jay Newman, who assumes control of a station that's just realized its best sweeps-month ratings in years. On the other hand, WBAL's incoming VP/GM, Bill Fine, may wish he'd shown up back in May, when Channel 11 finished first at 11 and won the 5 p.m. race by almost two full ratings points.

Not that WJZ's dominance should be overstated: The two stations were separated by only half a ratings point at 11 p.m. and a single point at 6 p.m. And Channel 13 was no doubt helped by CBS' surprisingly strong performance overall, as it finished ahead of NBC in total viewers.

But the November ratings book clearly shows that momentum has swung WJZ's way.

Some tidbits of ratings news:

WJZ's long-dominant 6 a.m. newscast, which had shown signs of slipping, rebounded somewhat, beating its competition at WBAL by 1.9 ratings points, compared with 1.4 points during the last sweeps month, in May.

WMAR, Channel 2, picked up viewers at 11 p.m., finishing with a 6.4 rating (compared with 5.3 in May).

Averaging all newscasts, WJZ continued on top with a 6.9 rating, compared with 6.4 for WBAL and 4.1 for WMAR.

'Houdini' fun but flawed

No one played a crowd better or worked harder at his craft than Harry Houdini, the master illusionist who spent his career teaching people not to trust their eyes.

Sunday on TNT, Maryland's own Johnathon Schaech ("That Thing You Do!", "Hush") stars as Houdini in a production that's at its best when concentrating on how the man did what he did, but suffers when it attempts to chronicle the love between Houdini and his wife, Bess (Stacy Edwards).

"Houdini" spends its two hours shifting back and forth between a seance being held on the anniversary of Houdini's death (presided over by a somber-voiced Paul Sorvino, as a megalomaniacal radio host) and scenes from Houdini's life. Born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest, Houdini is portrayed in the film as an obsessive mama's boy who spent his entire life trying to please his dead father and monopolize the affections of his mother.

The back-and-forth nature of the film keeps interest levels high, even though the young cast doesn't do a very good job of acting old in the seance scenes. But it's while chronicling Houdini's early career -- he changed his name to honor the famous magician Robert-Houdin -- that "Houdini" really comes to life.

Schaech is a joy to watch as Houdini works at perfecting the skills that would leave audiences gasping. Specializing in escapes from seemingly escape-proof situations -- jail cells, locked tanks filled with water, wearing a strait-jacket and suspended from a cable 100 feet above the ground -- Houdini became famous for accomplishing the impossible.

But after his mother died in 1913, Houdini changed his focus. Either because he genuinely wanted to contact his mother or because he was infuriated by frauds who preyed on people's willingness to be fooled, he delighted in exposing fake mediums and debunking the idea that the living could contact the dead.

Houdini died on Halloween 1926, after a student wanting to test the magician's famed abdominal muscles caught him unawares and ruptured his appendix. Rather inexplicably, the film changes the incident from an accidental sucker punch -- a distracted Houdini had not had time to brace himself -- to an act of thuggery.

But history is the least of the problems with "Houdini." Far harder to take is the dialogue from writer-director Pen Densham (the feature film "Moll Flanders"), who has the actors saying things that may have looked good on the page but sound stilted and way too scripted actually coming out of people's mouths. That explains why the Houdinis' love story seems more contrived than convincing.

Densham's direction works far better; he does a nice job of conveying the energy and spontaneity that were the hallmarks of vaudeville -- traits that Houdini exemplified.

"Houdini" airs on Sunday TNT, from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. and midnight to 2 a.m.

'Meltdown' with Cher

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