Mark Twain once wrote that there were "lies, damn lies, and statistics." Hard to believe that the man died 19 years before the advent of television.
First, let's deal with ratings. The May "sweeps" period, of smothering importance to local stations and networks, is pulling to a close after tonight. The ratings estimates from Nielsen Media are unlikely to be affected much by the final nights. So, according to station officials - and those statistics - we can say:
WBAL is happy. Channel 11's late newscast at 11 p.m. has asserted its dominance over that time slot, considered the main event for local markets. The size of its audience for the late news has grown, while competitors have all lost viewers from the same time period last May. (Of course, which All-Pro linebacker was on trial in Atlanta a year ago, making news junkies of all of Baltimore?) The station keeps its hold on the 5 p.m. news. And key national offerings such as "Today," "Oprah" and "Jeopardy!" remain top programs.
WJZ is happy. Channel 13 has narrowly wrested back control of the 6 p.m. news slot from WBAL. In addition, compared with last May, WJZ's top-rated morning news shows have added viewers from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. (Audience sizes are generally compared year to year because of seasonal differences.) Its noon news, astoundingly, draws more viewers than anyone's evening newscasts.
WMAR is happy. Channel 2's morning show, long a weak spot, appears to be battling back, winning a markedly greater number of viewers from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m.
WBFF is happy. Channel 45's bright and shiny new morning show, from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., registers well above the ratings generated by the recycled sitcoms that used to air in that period. Meanwhile, sister station WNUV (Ch. 54) has found ratings luck with "Judge Mathis," which has climbed in the ratings almost high enough to dethrone "Regis & Kelly" on WBAL.
Now, a taste of reality:
WMAR, WBFF and WNUV often are fighting to win a relatively small portion of the audience. With only a few exceptions, the gulf appears to be widening between the haves and have-nots. WMAR's network, ABC, has failed to provide the kind of shows that keep viewers tuned in most days of the week, and its prime-time viewing levels are down significantly from a year ago. WBFF has seen real growth in its morning news ratings - but they still are quite small. Success will take a lot longer to gauge.
Viewing levels continue to ebb on all network affiliates. Except for WBAL, all the channels saw their ratings dip for the late news. Except for WJZ, all the stations experienced a drop in ratings during prime time. Some local TV executives have noted a relatively dry month. Blame cable, blame the Web, blame book groups - whatever the cause, people are turning to broadcast TV less than they did years ago.
Advertisers don't care solely about these ratings. They typically care more about key demographic groups, such as the people between 18 and 49. Those statistics don't arrive for another few weeks.
A report's shortcoming
A May 15 health report on WMAR contained just enough information to pique interest, but not enough to shed light.
Medical reporter Anna Marie Chwastiak briefly described how three players died in the past three years when their hearts stopped after a sharp blow to the sternum from a lacrosse ball.
Given Baltimore's interest in lacrosse, and WMAR's broadcast of local games, there might have been a germ of a story here. It wasn't developed enough, however. It was never stated whether the three players were from the city, the region or the nation. For the record: that's a national figure. According to U.S. Lacrosse, the game's Baltimore-based governing board, 270,000 Americans participate each year.
Of the 6 million kids who play baseball and softball, three or four die annually while participating in these sports, according to National SafeKids Campaign, a not-for-profit group. Millions more play basketball, soccer and football. It would be worth learning what sports are the deadliest, and whether mortality rates are indeed rising, as the anchor's introduction suggested.
We didn't learn any of this.
In an interview, Chwastiak says she checked medical and sports journals and interviewed doctors and other health professionals for her report, part of the "Discover Your Health" series that air Tuesday evenings and Wednesday mornings. But she said the limited time she had to prepare it and the shortness of the story precluded presenting additional views.
Researchers affiliated with U.S. Lacrosse are meeting with NCAA officials and lacrosse equipment designers later this spring to see if new gear or regulations are needed to protect players. They could have been useful to the story.
Instead, the 1-minute, 25-second report included comments from a former Johns Hopkins lacrosse goalie and two people affiliated with Union Memorial Hospital. A sports trainer at the hospital was highlighted in the report because he makes custom-designed shields to protect players' breastbones. The hospital's phone number was provided for viewers seeking more information.
But Medstar, the parent company of Union Memorial, is a major advertiser and serves as WMAR's partner in producing the "Discover Your Health" segments. So viewers couldn't know whether WMAR sought to pump up an advertiser's business, or to refer us to the best source of relevant information.
WOCT changes lineup
WOCT, Clear Channel's classic rock station here, has shaken up its lineup. After extensive listener surveys, the station has booted the syndicated "Bob & Tom Show" for a locally based morning program with Chris Emry and Miles Montgomery, providing a heavy emphasis on local content, weather and traffic. The station (104.3 FM) also promises to revamp its playlist.
Reporter wins honors
WJZ reporter Suzanne Collins won top honors this year from the Maryland State Bar Association for a two-part story on illegal gun purchases that aired last May.
Collins' reports, prompted in part by the killing spree of Joseph Palczynski, illustrated how most of those caught making illegal purchases received slight sentences because they had little or no criminal record. Her award was in a category for TV reporters from Maryland and Washington.
Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached at by email at email@example.com and by phone at 410-332-6923.