There have been no major changes at local anchor desks. Nor have any newscasts been added or dropped. But suddenly, Baltimore is a much more competitive local news market than it has been in decades.
Front-running WBAL (Channel 11) is not winning by wide margins any more with its evening newscasts, and even more surprising, WMAR (Channel 2) is no longer a ratings doormat trailing the competition by seemingly insurmountable margins.
Blame it on the Local People Meters, a new bit of technology introduced in Baltimore on July 2 by the Nielsen Media Co. to measure area viewing habits. Nielsen ratings are the primary source of data used by stations to sell advertising time - the fuel that makes the wheel of television go 'round and 'round.
"Obviously, this is much better for us, because in the old system, 'BAL [WBAL] and 'JZ [WJZ] had such a huge lead on us that we would never win a night on any newscast," said Bill Hooper, general manager of WMAR. "And now, we're winning nights or we're second on some nights. It's not huge, and it depends on the demographics ... but it's kind of changed the game a little."
Previously, Nielsen and Baltimore broadcasters relied on a decades-old method of handwritten diaries. The new People Meters offer instant, real-time demographic information that rules out the variable of faulty recall by viewers filling out their diaries.
But as impressive and technologically improved as Local People Meters seem, their arrival in other cities has caused shifts in station standing, complaints from broadcast companies and even lawsuits.
Only three weeks in, the results are extremely preliminary, and we are nowhere near loud complaints or lawsuits.
But the post-People-Meter pattern seen in other larger markets - of the top-rated station or stations seeing their ratings drop as the lowest-rated stations gain - looks like it could be repeating here.
All the stations are crunching the numbers for this July compared with last July. And the spin is sure to soon begin. But here is a snapshot of what I have seen based on 12 days (starting July 2) of complete data and three weeks of partials.
(And I promise, if you allow me one paragraph of numbers with decimal points, I will use them no more.)
WJZ (Channel 13) is tied, if not a touch ahead, of WBAL (Channel 11) at the most lucrative weeknight newscast spot at 11 o'clock - a reversal from last year.
For the first 12 nights, WJZ had a 6.3 rating and 12 share, while WBAL had a 6.2 rating and a 12 share. WMAR had a 2.5 rating and 5 share.
Compared with the same period last July, WJZ was down 8 percent, while WBAL was down 29 percent in share of audience. WMAR, meanwhile, was up 25 percent.
Furthermore, WJZ was leading at 11 p.m. in the important adults 25-54 demographic on which it sells its news. And People Meters are all about measuring demographics rather than just how many households are watching. Again, it is neck-and-neck, but WJZ has a slight edge as opposed to trailing slightly last year at the same time.
That said, however, in an effort to be fair to all parties, let me provide some context.
First, WBAL's drop might not be all related to People Meters. NBC has had weak numbers before 11 p.m., and that can contribute to smaller audiences.
Furthermore, since stations at the low end of the ratings have such small audiences, their percentages of gain can seem inflated.
Still, none of that invalidates Hooper's optimism and the bounce folks are feeling at Channel 2 these days.
Jay Newman, the general manager of WJZ, says he's also feeling "cautiously optimistic" about the way his CBS-owned station has fared under the new People Meters.
"The demographics have held up pretty well, at least for us in most time periods," Newman said. "In our case, we feel our competitive situation is at least as strong, maybe a little stronger, overall when you take everything in account."
WBAL's Jordan Wertlieb cautions about making too much of summer numbers when viewing levels are traditionally lower.
"We have seen adjustments, as we expected," Wertlieb said. "But the most important point: The relative position and strengths of the station have not changed."
Nielsen executives also caution against making too much of such preliminary data from the middle of summer.
"The takeaway from us is let's wait until we get to September or October to see what the trends are in Baltimore," said Don Lowry, a Nielsen vice president.