Baltimore has been one of the most predictable cities in the country when it comes to late local TV news. For more than a decade, WBAL has been attracting the most viewers with WJZ trailing close behind. While the news changed, the ratings didn't.
But the longtime local TV status quo could get a good shaking in coming months. NBC is poised to make a bold but risky move in prime-time scheduling, just as new and controversial audience measurement technology arrives in Baltimore.
This week, Jay Leno ends a 17-year run in late-night TV as host of The Tonight Show. But he's not leaving the airwaves.
In one of the biggest shifts since the networks embraced reality TV, NBC this fall will upend the prime-time landscape by replacing its expensive 10 p.m. dramas with a new show for Leno.
The potential fallout to the 11 p.m. newscasts of NBC affiliates like WBAL is enormous.
"This is a big experiment by NBC and a huge roll of the dice for their affiliates in cities like Baltimore," said Douglas Gomery, a media economist at the University of Maryland.
He points to Oprah Winfrey's powerful lead-in effect on early newscasts across the country as evidence for how important a 10 o'clock network show can be to the fortunes of an 11 o'clock local newscast.
"We're talking about tens of millions of dollars in local station revenue," Gomery said. "And NBC is seriously messing with that. I tell you, I'd be worried if I ran an NBC station."
While Jordan Wertlieb, president and general manager of WBAL, acknowledged that the move is a bold one, he said he sees it only as a positive for his station.
Referring to research done for the NBC affiliates board, of which he is a member, Wertlieb says viewers want fewer procedural crime dramas at 10 and "more topical" material.
"I just came from an affiliates meeting, and we feel very good about this move," Wertlieb said. "It's bold but it's being made in response to changing viewing patterns. ... It's based on a lot of study and merit."
But not all the network affiliates are onboard.
Ed Ansin, owner of Boston's WHDH, has said his station will not carry Leno's show next fall, telling The Boston Globe it would be "detrimental to our 11 o'clock newscast" and "detrimental to our finances."
NBC Network President John Eck has countered by saying WHDH would be in "flagrant violation" of its contract if they refuse to carry Leno: "If they persist, we will strip WHDH of its NBC affiliation."
That's the kind of fight this is shaping up to be, and some of the heaviest hitters in the business are flexing their muscles.
Calling Leno's move to 10 p.m. "a real sea change," Leslie Moonves, chief executive and president of CBS Corp., says, "There will be more [audience] share available for the people who put on great dramas" at 10 p.m. weeknights.
The fall schedule that Moonves' programmers unveiled last week in New York is all about pounding Leno and NBC at 10 p.m. with such shows as The Mentalist, the highest-rated new drama on TV, on Thursday nights and The Good Wife, the highly anticipated new Julianna Margulies drama, on Tuesdays.
Jay Newman, general manager of CBS-owned WJZ, said he thinks the network's strategy at 10 p.m. will pay rich dividends for his Baltimore news at 11 o'clock.
"We are very impressed with the strength of CBS' prime-time schedule headed into the fall season ... particularly at 10," Newman said.
As if the Leno move weren't enough to worry about, another potentially disruptive force arrives in Baltimore July 2 with the introduction of Local People Meters from the Nielsen Media Co. to measure area viewing habits. Nielsen ratings are the primary source of data used by stations to sell advertising time.
Previously, Nielsen relied on a decades-old method of handwritten diaries. The new People Meters offer instant, real-time demographic data that rules out the variable of faulty recall by viewers in filling out their diaries.
But as good and technologically improved as Local People Meters have seemed to be on paper, their arrival in other cities has often caused major disruptions in viewing patterns, complaints from stations and even lawsuits.
What tends to happen in most cities is that the market-leading station or stations see their audience ratings drop. Sometimes, they even fall from the top of the heap altogether.
Local People Meters were introduced in Miami in October, and last month, WSVN, the Fox affiliate, filed suit against Nielsen, claiming that flawed data from the People Meters will cost the station $12 million in revenue this year.
According to the lawsuit, the station says that ratings for its 10 p.m. newscasts fell 50 percent after the People Meters were introduced, while ratings for American Idol, the hit prime-time show from Fox, fell 40 percent.