WMAR (Channel 2) is crowing, however briefly, as its perennially struggling 11 p.m. newscast drew enough viewers from the preceding show, the much-heralded "Hopkins 24/7" ABC News documentary, to best its competitors last night.
To offer some perspective: the last time WMAR beat both WJZ (Ch. 13) and WBAL-TV (Ch. 11) during the marquee 11 o'clock news program, it was literally giving away money to viewers with its "Watch and Win" promotion during the May sweeps. That same night also marked the season finale of "NYPD Blue," the popular ABC police drama which immediately preceded the news.
"Morale is pretty good right now," said Drew Berry, the station's general manager, who used the overnight ratings as a way to tout WMAR. "The station's doing the best it has since 1994."
In the Baltimore region, "24/7" on WMAR drew about 24 percent of all households watching television, a strong performance that roughly doubled the national share of viewers for the ABC show. It easily defeated a CBS made-for-TV movie on WJZ, and a rerun of NBC's "Law & Order" on WBAL.
"This is a real good, unusual performance for them at 10 o'clock, which they capitalized on very well," said Jay Newman, the general manager for WJZ.
The WMAR newscast, which featured reports from the Johns Hopkins Hospital tied to the ABC show, held about 19 percent of all Baltimore-area viewers, beating WJZ and WBAL by two and four percentage points, respectively.
In a larger way, Berry is attempting to set up a fight with WBAL, which styles itself as "Baltimore's No. 1 News Station," but often runs second to WJZ. Berry argued that Wednesday's ratings indicate that his channel's news show drew in some WBAL viewers. In general, he said, the numbers that WBAL has been getting during its 11 p.m. news show have been driven by the strong audience for the NBC medical drama "ER."
"If you took that away, they've got some serious problems," Berry said. "The bigger the audience you have leading into your newscast, the greater the success. When we had Oprah (at 4 p.m.) our newscasts were number 1 or 2 at 5 p.m."
Six times during the May sweeps period, WMAR's newscast beat WBAL. That period included the controversial Stan Stovall segment in which he dressed as a panhandler to explore whether people should give money when approached by the indigent.
Not surprisingly, the WBAL brass dismissed the importance of Wednesday's ratings. The NBC affiliate says it is in a pitched battle with WJZ, the longtime mainstay of Baltimore television, not with third-place WMAR. "The real question is, can they keep these numbers up?" said Victoria Rose, WBAL's research director. "We can't remember the last time they won the 11 o'clock news slot, outside of sweeps."
Scripps-Howard, which owns WMAR, along with owners of other ABC affiliates, has been pushing the network to put the popular "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" on once a week at 10 p.m. to help the local newscasts.