Viewers still tuning in with impressive numbers

February 14, 2010|By David Zurawik | david.zurawik@baltsun.com | Sun TV Critic

Every so often in reporting on the media, a fact comes along that is so impressive it warrants a second look.

Last week, there were three facts like that. And most remarkably, they all seemed to be pointing to the same conclusion: TV continues to be the principal storyteller in American life, despite more than a decade of pundits insisting that the medium was one step away from the boneyard.

The first number that raised some eyebrows came when Nielsen announced that last Sunday's Super Bowl was the most-watched show in television history.

The New Orleans Saints' upset of the Indianapolis Colts was seen by 106.5 million people, topping the 1983 finale of " M*A*S*H," which drew an audience of 105.97 million. Think of that: Last week, we saw the most-watched show in some 62 years of prime-time programs.

That number does not say dinosaur to me.

The second fact was far less spectacular on the surface, but just as impressive when you think about it.

On Tuesday, Nielsen reported its weekly ratings for the network evening newscasts - and once again, " NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams" clocked in with an audience of 10 million viewers a night. The exact number for you purists is 9.995 million.

And not only has it been the conventional wisdom for more than a decade that network news was dead; five years ago, we were told it was the end of the anchorman era. I love these big, phony pundit terms.

The third fact involves the tens of thousands of additional viewers who tuned into Baltimore's TV news stations for storm coverage Wednesday as blizzard conditions mounted and all but emergency vehicles were ordered off the streets.

The average combined local TV audience at noon jumped from 151,868 viewers to 373,725 on Wednesday. The 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. audience went from 207,167 to 402,594 for WBAL, WJZ, WBFF and WMAR combined. The bulk of it belonged to WBAL and WJZ.

Combining these three facts with the recent deluge of interest in the future of "The Tonight Show," WBAL General Manager Jordan Wertlieb was feeling pretty good last week about the continued vitality of network and local TV.

"This year's Super Bowl audience, the tremendous viewership for this past week's storm coverage, as well as the incredible interest in the late-night shows, are all testament to the continued loyalty and passion that television viewers have for broadcast television," Wertlieb said. "The local stations and traditional networks have been an important part of local communities for generations, and are still so today."

It's not that any rational media analyst or practitioner would want to deny that new media are changing the landscape dramatically because, obviously, they are.

Representative of that change was the place that Marylanders turned to in even larger numbers for news and information during the public safety crisis on Wednesday than they did local TV: the Web.

Baltimoresun.com set a single-day traffic record Wednesday with 2.74 million page views, nearly 500,000 more than the previous record, set on Feb. 6, another day of blizzard conditions, closed roads and downed power lines in the Mid-Atlantic.

"Of course, there has been monumental media change in recent years - half my students now watch TV on their laptops," says Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture and TV history at Syracuse University.

"But this whole idea that one medium automatically replaces another was always an artificial notion, and it remains so today. We're so used to this idea, 'OK, the dinosaurs were around, and then they died. And now, we're around.' This whole idea that one thing instantly replaces another, and now it's old-school network TV that's being replaced, well, that's obviously not how this TV model is playing out."

Nowhere in the history of American broadcasting did it work that way, with one medium suddenly making another totally irrelevant - not with TV replacing radio in the 1940s and 1950s, or the rise of cable TV in the 1980s. And yet, the conventional wisdom somehow holds against all facts.

"Just look at the Brian Williams ratings," Thompson says. "Once again, how long have people been saying network news is irrelevant, it's dead, it doesn't matter anymore, it's a dinosaur? And what I really love is people often say that in the same conversation where they are breathlessly commenting on some change or controversy connected to a network anchor desk. If it doesn't matter, why do we talk so much about something like Diane Sawyer replacing Charlie Gibson, or George Stephanopoulos replacing Sawyer?"

Thompson says the same is true and then some with the widespread and intense "civic conversation" over Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and the future of NBC's "Tonight Show."

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