The Hollywood writers' strike safely behind them, Baltimore's TV watchers are flocking back to the network affiliates, with viewing levels up 2.3 percent over last year, according to figures released this week by A.C. Nielsen, a national ratings firm.
The increase marked the first time since May of last year that overall ratings had gone up during the "sweeps" months of February, May and November, when stations traditionally put on their best programming and set advertising rates. In February, for instance, the overall audience was down 3 percent from a year ago. In November, the audience was down 5 percent.
The numbers, says Jordan Wertlieb, president and general manager of WBAL, Channel 11, show that television remains the medium of choice for most Americans. Figures show the average American spends four hours a day watching television, and loyalty to local programming remains strong. "That's why the numbers are up."
Jay Newman, general manager at WJZ, Channel 13, says the increase is a testimony not only to viewer loyalty, but to the stations' determination not to take that loyalty for granted.
"It's a real credit to WJZ, and to some other stations, that they are not doing the same-old, same-old when it comes to producing television news." Newman, for instance, has long stressed the importance of updating WJZ's daily news product as often as possible, either on the air or on the station's Web site.
Baltimore's numbers are reflected nationally, as well. Overall ratings are up between 2 percent and 4 percent in most major markets, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston.
In Baltimore, WBAL remained the most-watched station for most local newscasts. But WJZ showed strong growth, rebounding from a weak February sweeps performance.
For the key 11 p.m. newscast, WBAL remained No. 1, with its weekday newcasts averaging some 11,000 more viewers than runner-up WJZ. But Channel 13 improved considerably from February, when the disparity between the two stations was some 37,000 viewers. WJZ's 11 p.m. audience climbed 31 percent, while WBAL's fell 2 percent.
WBAL also had the top-rated newscast at 5 p.m., with roughly 20,000 more viewers than WJZ, and at 6 p.m., with roughly 19,000 more viewers. WJZ, however, cut into the disparity in both those time slots.
Among the early-morning newscasts, WBAL maintained a slim lead at 6 a.m. (by 11 percent over WJZ). But WBAL trounced the competition at 7 a.m., when its combination of NBC's Today show and local newsbreaks bested CBS' The Early Show on WJZ by 74 percent, or some 33,000 viewers.
In January, CBS and its revamped Early Show took over some of the time that had been reserved for WJZ morning mainstays Don Scott and Marty Bass. The audience for the 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. time slot fell 15 percent from February to May.
WJZ retained its lead at noon, where its newscast attracted some 21,000 more viewers than WBAL's.
Overall, for the entire broadcast day, WJZ and WBAL finished in a virtual tie for the most viewers in an average quarter-hour, with some 52,000 each (WJZ finished about 1,000 viewers ahead). That compares to roughly 25,500 for WMAR, Channel 2, and 23,900 for WBFF, Channel 45.