The late local news isn't what it used to be in Baltimore.
In fact, the nightly program that for decades has served as the flagship broadcast for all major stations and the home of such familiar faces as Rod Daniels, Denise Koch and Mary Beth Marsden isn't half of what it used to be for the oldest and largest stations here when it comes to audiences.
Though Baltimore residents are often depicted as being deeply committed to tradition, area viewers are tuning out a decades-old media formula that once served as a nightly ritual marking the end of the day for tens of thousands of Maryland families.
Station managers insist that their late newscasts are still a important part of their programming strategies, but analysts wonder whether 11 p.m. newscasts in cities like Baltimore aren't on their way to becoming obsolete much like evening newspapers.
While ratings can be open to multiple interpretations, it is hard to miss the message of this startling snapshot of the weeknight news landscape: In the past five years, from one May sweeps ratings period to the other, WBAL has lost 62 percent, WMAR 56 percent, and WJZ 52 percent of their 11 p.m. news audiences in the key demographic on which most advertising is sold — viewers 25 to 54 years of age.
That steep decline came into sharp focus last week with the arrival of the first May sweeps data since the introduction of a new audience measurement method a year ago. Baltimore station managers believe that these Local People Meters have accelerated the trend.
"That kind of decline isn't the result of one thing – it's the result of a bunch of things," says Bob Papper, Hofstra University professor and director of a benchmark annual study of local TV newsrooms in the U.S. done by the Radio, Television Digital News Association.
"Some of this is the result of the steady graying of the news audience on one end. But another big part involves the younger side of that prime demographic being nibbled away especially by the Internet," Papper said. "You're talking about people who have learned via the Internet that they can get what they want when they want it when it comes to news. So, appointment viewing, like an 11 p.m. newscast, is really becoming a problem for television stations, because people just don't live like that anymore – and they know they don't have to."
Or, as David Blum, a Baltimore advertising agency executive, puts it, "This decline in viewership for late local news is symptomatic of living in an instant world today."
"The access to news 24/7, which started with cable television networks, then went to the Internet and now is right in front of you on your mobile phone, has in some way made the delivery of that information on late local newscasts obsolete," says the senior vice president at GKV, a full service Baltimore-based communications firm.
Pointing to the long-held belief that many viewers tune into the late news for local weather and sports, Blum offered an example of how even that sense of an exclusive franchise for local TV has been undermined by new technology and a hyper-local mentality.
"Whereas local weather used to mean a local personality giving me a sense of what the temperature was going to be and whether or not it might rain in the general area, I now have an application on my mobile phone that has a weather station at a high school that's close to my house," Blum says.
"So, it's telling me what the temperature and the wind is from that particular location – and I can call up a map to see exactly where the rain is. Now, I know I'm an early adopter with more technology than the average guy probably, but that kind of technology is filtering down, and that's the kind of force that furthers audience erosion at 11 p.m. even for the mainstay of local weather."
All of the general managers in Baltimore acknowledge that lifestyle and technological changes have taken a toll on the late news audience the last five years, but they also all point to one major factor, which they believe has made the loss of viewers seem worse than it is: the introduction last June of controversial Local People Meters by Nielsen Media Research.
"As an industry, we can't deny that demographic trends and lifestyles have put a damper on the 11 o'clock news, because you can get news in so many different places," says Bill Hooper, the general manager at WMAR. "We understand that. But there has been much more of a decline in the recent year and it coincides with Nielsen changing their methodology to the Local People Meters. That is not the factor, but it is a factor in these declining ratings."
Previously, Nielsen had relied on a decades-old method of handwritten diaries. The new People Meters offer instant, real-time demographic data that supposedly 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 looked on paper, their arrival in other cities has regularly caused major disruptions in viewing patterns, complaints from stations and even lawsuits over the methodology.
Local People Meters were introduced in Miami in October, 2008, and last year, WSVN, the Fox affiliate, filed suit against Nielsen, claiming that flawed data from the People Meters had cost the station $12 million in revenue. The case is now headed to court after a judge denied Nielsen's motion to dismiss in March.
No one disputes that the Local People Meters have accelerated the rate of decline in late news ratings in Baltimore since their introduction in June. But even if you narrow the snapshot to 2009 so as to exclude the People Meter ratings for this May, you still have a steep downward trend.
For example, WBAL's audience goes from 79,800 viewers 25 to 54 years of age in May 2005 to 44,900 in May 2009. That's not as bad as the 62 percent skid when you include 2010, but it is still a 44 percent drop.
The numbers are similar for WJZ, which goes from 78,500 to 51,400 viewers from 2005 to 2009 in the target demographic. WMAR, meanwhile, moves from 26,400 to 17,000.
Jay Newman, general manager at WJZ, the number one station at 11 p.m. this May, says late news is still the most important single broadcast in his shop. But even he admits that changing lifestyles and technology have radically altered the way his station — which shares content with The Baltimore Sun — does business from the days when stations lived or died with their late news ratings.
"We have successfully and dramatically changed our approach over the last years to be more in synch with how viewers access news," Newman says. "Long gone is the era that I grew up in where the family gathered around the TV and watched one half hour of news at 6 o'clock – or watched the late news before they shut off the lights and went to bed. It isn't about one time period anymore."
Pointing to more hours of local news and a strong commitment to the Internet and social media, Newman says, "Our approach is now to access more viewers, more often throughout the day over a variety of media platforms — whether that's on WJZ television, WJZ.com, or whether it's the 40,000-plus fans we have on Facebook, on Twitter or other social media."
WBAL is pursuing the same kind of multi-platform, 24/7 strategy under general manager Jordan Wertleib. It is also using one of its franchises, local investigative reporting, to strong advantage.
While Wertleib acknowledges that there is less "news audience available" at 11 p.m. to all stations, he stresses several points — two of which he believes balance the equation to some extent.
"One, every study, no matter who you ask, shows that Americans are watching more television today than ever before," he says. "However, there are also clearly lifestyle changes that are re-distributing that viewership by day part. And we are seeing more interest than ever before in early morning television, which is probably due to commuting times and lifestyle changes."
Along with the Internet, social media and cable TV, early morning television is one of the answers to the question: Where have the late news viewers gone?
All of the stations say they are putting more resources into early news, and analysts expect one of the Baltimore stations to go for a 4:30 a.m. start in the near future.
"If we look at the big picture over the last 30 years, we see that we spent a period a time when we worked less and less and had more and more leisure time," says Hofstra's Papper. "That actually stopped a while ago, and now we spend more and more hours at work, and we're doing that by starting earlier and earlier. And so, what we're seeing in a lot of markets is an increase in the morning audience, as we see a decrease in the evening news audience – not in all markets, but in many."
WBFF, Baltimore's Fox affiliate, is the only local station to grow audience at 11 p.m. and in the morning during the last five years. The late news situation at the Sinclair-owned station is more complicated than that of the other stations because it has both a 10 and 11 p.m. newscast — and the earlier one is its flagship.
While WBFF started out as a niche and counter programmer when it introduced its late news at 10 p.m. in 1991, it now finishes ahead of WMAR at 11 p.m. — and its 10 p.m. newscast drew more viewers in the key demographic than did WBAL's late news in May.
"Look, there are more choices, so there's more fragmentation, no doubt about it" says Fanshawe, who in addition to WBFF, manages stations in 11 other cities for the Sinclair Broadcast Group.
"But one of the positives for all of us when you really look at the numbers is that we are still the biggest game around. You look at a station and they have 40,000 people in the prime demographic of 25 to 54, and you think, 'Hey, that's down from 60,000 five years ago.' But that's still as many people as there are at a Ravens game. That's still a lot of people that you're reaching every night. Is that as powerful as it was five years ago? No. But it's still reaching an awful lot of people, and no one else can compete with that."