Executives at WBAL-TV were crowing yesterday after winning the region's highest ratings for evening and late night news shows - beating out their chief Baltimore rival, WJZ, as the May "sweeps" month came to a close.
"We swept all the most important newscasts," said Bill Fine, president and general manager for WBAL-TV. "This [ratings period], by any objective measure, was an incredibly strong one for this station."
The "sweeps" period is closely watched because the ratings are used to help set advertising rates for the next few months. WBAL, an NBC affiliate, won ratings for its May newscasts at 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. - the last of which is the top moneymaker for most local television stations.
Still, WJZ-TV maintains stronger audiences for its morning programs, featuring a mix of jokey talk and news from Don Scott and Marty Bass. The CBS-owned station also holds a strong ratings lead for its noon newscast. In addition, CBS broadcasts the highest-rated prime-time network schedule nationally and in the Baltimore market.
"In the areas that matter the most - maximizing your viewership all day long for news and non-news - we've got to be pleased," said WJZ's vice president and general manager, Jay Newman. He said the station's ratings performance gives him "the ability to 'monetize' the book" - that is, translate ratings into advertising revenue.
Newman noted that WJZ and WBAL have nearly identical average audiences throughout the entire 24-hour cycle. The two stations are like scorpions in a bottle, fighting for position over recent years while largely ignoring the other two major local commercial stations - WMAR, an ABC affiliate, and WBFF-TV, a Fox station owned by Baltimore County-based Sinclair Broadcast Group.
WJZ has maintained a folksy feel to its early morning news shows, while adopting a brisker "breaking news" pace in the evenings. By contrast, WBAL-TV sticks to a much more consistent tone, slick and fast throughout, with repeated promotions of hard news and plugs for the technology used by its weather forecasters.
Fine said he was pleased that WBAL-TV had become stronger in the morning ratings shows against WJZ, though his station showed mixed results compared to last year's levels. "Our audience is better educated, a little bit wealthier," he said. "It's an audience we can market very well to potential advertisers."
At 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., WBAL-TV expanded its leads, though WJZ closed the gap for the late newscast at 11 p.m. The evening and late newscasts are "the money shows," Fine says, "the ones that make the most difference to our business."
WJZ-TV had made forays into the afternoon news ratings with its 4 p.m. newscast. But Oprah Winfrey's syndicated talk show, which airs weekdays on WBAL at 4 p.m., regained its golden ratings touch this spring. And WBAL's late news performance comes despite the recent erosion of NBC's prime-time entertainment lineup.