Ratings show high interest in mayor's race

TV: A political debate featuring three candidates attracted large numbers of viewers.

Radio and Television

September 01, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

If the Nielsen ratings for Monday night's mayoral debate are an indication, there is tremendous interest in the Democratic primary.

The hourlong debate among Lawrence A. Bell III, Martin O'Malley and Carl Stokes was seen in about 68,000 area homes, according to overnight figures. That translates to a third-place overall finish behind "ABC Monday Night Football," which was seen in 73,000 homes, and the CBS sitcoms "King of Queens" and "Thanks," which were seen in 94,000 homes.

The size of the audience is especially impressive when you consider that the debate is mainly of concern to Baltimore city residents only, and that Baltimore city makes up just under one-fourth (24.1 percent) of the Baltimore television market.

"Given that the debate was of special interest to only 24.1 percent of the total market, I would have to say that is a tremendous audience for a political debate," said Sharon Walz, research director at WBAL (Channel 11), which carried the debate. Kweisi Mfume, NAACP president and the man many wanted to see as Baltimore's next mayor, moderated the telecast.

As for the telecast itself, the kindest thing I can say is that it was wildly overproduced, with all the introductory reports and back and forth from the anchor team of Rod Daniels and Marianne Banister. Wouldn't it have been nice if WBAL would have used the full hour to let Mfume ask questions and the candidates debate rather than trying to showcase its anchor team?

This is not a knock on the performances of Banister and Daniels, but their very presence was a distraction. And every moment with their blah-blah-blah anchor-talk was a moment lost from the debate. To make matters worse, the station staged it so that their anchors were closer to us than the debaters and moderators, as if this was a network anchor team at a national convention translating what it all means for us politically naive fools out in television land.

The public comes first in the terms "public affairs" and "public service." Neither has anything to do with promoting your news product. Political information already comes with more than enough media spin and filters, thank you. I didn't need another set in the form of Daniels and Bannister Monday night.

Wrestling wins big ratings

UPN has been getting smacked by the critics since it announced that it was bringing wrestling to prime time this season. But the struggling network had the first laugh last week when the premiere of "WWF Smackdown!" set ratings records.

In Baltimore, "Smackdown!" scored the highest rating ever for a Thursday night in prime time for WUTB (Channel 24), with an audience of about 58,000 homes. That's more than double what most of the network's prime-time programming has averaged here.

Nationally, "Smackdown!" was No. 1 with teens and young men 18 to 34 years of age, the target audience. While series like "Dilbert" and "Moesha" did better overall in their premieres, the ratings for "Smackdown!" were among the best the network had ever achieved with teens and young men.

Furthermore, in head-to-head competition, "Smackdown!" almost doubled the audience for the "WCW Thunder" wrestling show on cable's Superstation TBS, according to Nielsen Media Research.

UPN officials acknowledge that "Smackdown!" is up mainly against reruns at this point and that nobody's going to call it a hit until it wins those kinds of ratings against new fall programs on the other networks.

"But I'd have to say we're feeling pretty optimistic about `Smackdown!' based on last week's numbers," UPN vice president Patti McTeague said yesterday.

During an interview in Los Angeles last month, Dean Valentine, the head of UPN, said he believes there is a "disconnect" between the press and the "guys who watch wrestling" when it comes to understanding the appeal of the sport. Valentine had come under fire a few days earlier during a press conference for calling wrestling "soap opera for guys."

As he explained it, "I think one of the reasons the WWF has been so successful and revolutionized the genre is that they developed a way of telling stories between the actual bouts. It's really become a soap opera for guys -- for young guys -- and it's all the things that apply in a one-hour show: character, storytelling and jeopardy now applied to wrestling on a week-to-week basis."

I think I know the story UPN is trying to tell young men with the full-page ad it is running in TV Guide this week for "Smackdown!" The ad features leather-clad female wrestler Chyna proudly standing with her boot on the chest of a male wrestler, who is lying on the mat looking up at her. She's in a two-piece leather outfit.

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