In the new world of endless channels and multiple ways to watch TV, you almost never see as dramatic a change in viewing as the one unfolding in Baltimore this fall.
After a year of speculation about how the end of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" would affect the fortunes of local stations, the October "sweeps" ratings period shows WJZ surpassing longtime ratings champ WBAL in the afternoon and early evening.
Call it the aftereffect of the legendary Oprah Factor. Even if she hasn't yet found a way to translate her ratings magic to her new cable channel OWN, Winfrey still has an impact on local TV.
Last October, WBAL, Baltimore's Hearst-owned NBC affiliate, was drawing 74,700 total viewers from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. This October, it is drawing 39,600 in the same time period for Oprah's replacement, "Ellen."
Meanwhile, CBS-owned WJZ, which last year was drawing 44,500 for its early news, is now being seen by 68,800 area viewers from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.
"That's an incredibly significant shift," says University of Maryland media economist Douglas Gomery. "And not only because of what happens in that one hour. The real power of 'Oprah' for local stations was in the way it affected their news programs that followed her show — and the way it could affect station profits as a result."
The "Oprah Factor" referred not to what Winfrey's show did in its time period, but rather its ability to drive viewers into early evening local newscasts — the place where local stations get to keep all the advertising revenue.
And while WJZ had 62,100 viewers in October 2010, it had an average of 76,700 this October for the two-hour block from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. when it airs local news. (The "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" airs at 7 p.m. weeknights on the station.)
WBAL, meanwhile, went from 82,700 viewers last October with "Oprah" as a lead-in to 70,700 this year for the 90-minute block that runs from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. weekdays. (The "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams" airs at 6:30 p.m. weeknights on WBAL.)
Jay Newman, general manager of WJZ, which shares content with The Baltimore Sun, acknowledges that it's nice to not have to compete with "Oprah" any more. But he says he reads those numbers also as validation of a decision made a decade ago to air local news instead of syndicated shows at 4 p.m. opposite Winfrey's talk-show juggernaut.
"What we're seeing this October," Newman says, "is not only the result of some changes in syndicated programming, it's the success of the substantial focus by our station on providing an aggressive, consistent news product day in and day out."
Dan Joerres, general manager of WBAL, has a decidedly different take on the ratings — and questions the validity of even comparing "Oprah" to "Ellen."
"We're going to have the Super Bowl on Feb. 5 of next year," Joerres says by way of addressing the shift in overall viewership. "The day after, we're not going to have the Super Bowl, and so we're going to have a dramatic downswing."
But, in his estimation, that is more a measure of the ratings power of Winfrey's syndicated show or a Super Bowl than a negative reflection on "Ellen."
"I don't think you can compare Oprah to Ellen," he says. "Oprah was a one-of-kind. Did we expect to have the exact same ratings that Oprah delivered? Absolutely not. What we expected to do was continue to be No. 1, and that's what we are."
As it has long been in Baltimore, the "No. 1" claim in TV news is a contested one between WBAL and WJZ. Joerres bases his claim on demographics — on the performance of "Ellen" and his local news with viewers in the key age group of 25 to 54.
From 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., "Ellen" draws 19,900 viewers between the ages of 25 to 54, while WJZ's news draws 17,300.
And while WJZ is now No. 1 in overall viewership during the evening news block, WBAL remains No. 1 with viewers 25 to 54. WJZ has 24,700 viewers in that demographic during its early evening news block, compared with 25,900 for WBAL.
"The majority of our business is demos, people 25 to 54, and that's what you have to protect," Joerres says, defending the performance of "Ellen."
On the other hand, last October when it aired "Oprah," WBAL had 35,000 young adults watching, and now it has 19,900 with "Ellen."
Perhaps, the best news in all these numbers for WBAL is in the performance of its early news block, which lost only 600 viewers in the key demographic year to year. That indicates the strength of its news brand, analysts say.
But losing viewers is never good news.
"Look, of course demographics matter," says Gomery, scholar-in-residence at the Library of American Broadcasting in College Park.
"But the station that lost all those viewers now that Oprah's gone is just trying to put a nice spin on it with all the emphasis only on viewers 25 to 54," he explains. "I'm sorry, but the standing in overall viewing flipped."
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