`Sweeps' is sweet for WBAL, WMAR

March 15, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Two stations emerged with happy tidings from the latest "sweeps" period, during which television ratings are measured: WBAL-TV and, to a lesser extent, WMAR-TV.

In fall 2002, WJZ-TV introduced a 4 p.m. newscast to lead into its early evening news programs against the reigning monarch of daytime talk - Oprah Winfrey, whose syndicated show airs locally on WBAL-TV. The move paid dividends in February 2003, leading to strong showings for WJZ at 4 p.m. and first-place ratings at 5 p.m. during a heavy news cycle.

Of late, Winfrey's program has bounced vigorously back from ratings declines, thanks to her decision to focus more on celebrity interviews and less on New Age spirituality and self-discovery. And for the "sweeps" month ending last week, WBAL reclaimed its ratings leads in the late afternoon, at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m.

"We've built the strongest afternoon bloc, and I think it's sustainable at this point," said Bill Fine, president and general manager of WBAL-TV. "I think we've got a mix now of Dr. Phil, Oprah and our early evening newscasts that's clicking on all cylinders. Our growth, year-to-year, is nothing short of outstanding."

From 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., for example, WBAL's share of the television audience grew by about a quarter when compared to its standing of a year ago, while WJZ's audience dropped by about the same amount. At 11 p.m., WJZ still commands a slight lead. (All these ratings are based on estimates from Nielsen Media Research.)

Jay Newman, general manager of WJZ, said his station's strategy of providing news across more hours - two and a half hours of more local newscasts than WBAL - keeps Baltimore advertisers happy. "We're still up, particularly from where we were two, three years ago," he said. "Last year was kind of an anomaly."

As Fine concedes, "As always, we recognize that WJZ remains a formidable competitor."

Overall television-news viewing levels are down from last year's figures. But officials at several local stations said the tough weather last February kept people indoors, and major news stories, such as the build-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, drew unusually high interest.

WMAR enjoyed significant growth in its viewership, with gains notched in almost every news segment of the day. Drew Berry, general manager of WMAR, attributes those increases to a greater emphasis on enterprise reporting by several new reporters. His station starts from much smaller levels, however, often as little as one-third to one-half of the audience garnered by market leaders WJZ and WBAL. The ratings of WBFF-TV remained largely unchanged from last year.

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