David Zurawik

Baltimore stations jockey to fill the Oprah vacuum

For stations in Baltimore and across the country, Monday is the first day of the post-Oprah Winfrey era.

Llike their counterparts nationwide, stations here will be trying new and (allegedly_ improved shows to grab a piece of the huge audience that the queen of daytime television held for 25 years.

Baltimore's late-afternoon TV landscape will include a new talk show featuring what syndicators describe as a more personal Anderson Cooper, as well a new time slot for Ellen DeGeneres' "Ellen" at 4 p.m weekdays on WBAL — Winfrey's old Baltimore home.

WMAR will counter with a new "news" show aimed at younger "active" viewers that promises to "combine the broad appeal of on-air journalism with the interactivity of social media," while WBFF amps up its late-afternoon lineup with even more TV judges leading into the early news.

But for all the talk of new and improved, one the strongest contenders for dominance in the changing post-Oprah world of Baltimore TV is looking to do it with a 60-year-old formula that it slipped into the 4 p.m. time slot almost a decade ago: straight-ahead local TV news.

In 2002, having given up any hope of knocking "Oprah" off its throne, WJZ introduced a 4 p.m. newscast to Baltimore. It was looking for a more cost-effective way of finishing second to the most successful show in the history of syndication. It was a strategy that allowed for the CBS-owned station to lose in the ratings but still make money. With Oprah now gone, WJZ General Manager Jay Newman is staying the course.

"We have been very successful day in and day out, 52 weeks a year, for eight or nine years now with a strategy of counterprogramming all the other entertainment programs in late afternoon with our 4 o'clock news hour," says Newman, whose station has a content-sharing agreement with The Baltimore Sun.

"We've been consistent, finishing No. 1 or a strong No. 2 in the time period, and we expect that will only continue in the post-Oprah era," he says.

For all the speculation as to whether daytime viewers will take to CNN's Cooper or how DeGeneres' announced plan to include Oprah-like "giveaways" will play in cities like Baltimore, there is some hard evidence available from Nielsen Media Research as to where Baltimore viewers have spent their afternoons since Oprah ended in May and viewers were left only with reruns.

From May 26, the day after Oprah's finale, through Sept. 7, WJZ's "Eyewitness News" at 4 p.m. has been Baltimore's most-watched afternoon show, with an audience of 62,000 viewers.

Among all the shows airing in Baltimore weekdays between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., the second- and third-most popular were "Dr. Phil" and "The Talk," at 44,000 and 40,000 viewers, respectively.

Both shows also air on WJZ, and like many of the returning talk shows on other channels, "Dr. Phil" is promising to open with a bang this week thanks to interviews with the parents of Casey Anthony on Tuesday and Wednesday. (The interviews had been set to begin on Monday, but the producers of moved it back because some stations might pre-empt or move "Dr. Phil" on Monday to carry coverage of the rescheduled U.S. Open tennis finals.)

But while the Nielsen People Meters can tell us where viewers have been the past three months, they are not a perfect predictor of where the audience will be starting this week, says Dan Joerres, general manager at WBAL.

Summer and fall viewing patterns and audiences differ — and shows like "Ellen" are in rerun in the summer — while the news is live every day. Plus, Joerres says, "Ellen" was running in its old 2 p.m. time slot this summer, not the 4 p.m. period it takes over Monday.

"We're very confident in the strength of the 'Ellen' show," Joerres says. "It's in its ninth season, and they have great plans for the kickoff on 9/12 with what they call 'Amazing Giveaways.' So there'll be some extra eyeballs on that."

Joerres also stresses drilling down past the number of overall viewers to look at demographics and the "quality" of the "Ellen" audience.

"We can all bring consumers" to advertisers, he says. "That's not a problem. Television definitely does that. But it's the type of consumer, the quality consumer, the person that has disposable income, that has a job, an education, that has a specific direction and need. And that's what Oprah did, and that's what Ellen does. There's a lot of crossover between 'Ellen' and 'Oprah,' and that's we decided to put 'Ellen' in there at 4."

Indeed, WBAL has a sales sheet on the street heralding such facts as "70 percent of Ellen viewers are homeowners" and "Ellen is the most watched over any other talk show in the market by Oprah viewers."

But the deepest concern for stations like WBAL is what will happen to the block of local and network news running from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays.

"She provided this monster lead-in to the local news that drove ratings for two hours straight after her show ended in some cities," Hofstra University media studies professor Bob Papper said in describing what came to be known as the Oprah Factor. "With that going away, everybody's scrambling for a piece of the action."

Joerres predicts his station will maintain its news audience at 5 p.m. without Oprah, based on "the strength of the brand" on WBAL News.

"The brand of WBAL is a long-term term brand in Baltimore," he says. "And the strength of that brand in news will continue to persevere through and through."

Beyond news, one of the strongest performers over the summer were the courtroom shows. "Judge Judy" and "Judge Joe Brown," both of which air on WBFF, finished fourth and sixth among all shows.

Bill Fanshawe, general manager at Baltimore's Fox affiliate, will be doubling down on the courtroom offerings this fall adding "America's Courtroom" from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., followed by "Judge Judy" at 5 and 6 each night.

"With 'Judy' running at 5 followed by the news [at 5:30], and then 'Judy' again, what I'm doing is hammocking the news inside of 'Judge Judy,'" Fanshawe says. "She's a very good lead-in to the news, and we think we can definitely make some gains with Oprah gone."

Fanshawe, who also runs Baltimore's WNUV and stations elsewhere across the country for Sinclair Broadcast Group, says he has used the Judy-as-hammock strategy before and attracted a healthy audience of younger viewers.

He will be competing for that audience with WMAR, which is targeting young demographics with its new 4 p.m. show, "Right This Minute," according to General Manager Bill Hooper.

The show embraces social media to the point where it lets audience members determine what news stories it will cover in the same way trends are determined on Twitter.

"It's a show that's trying to position itself for today's video-centric, social media world," says Hooper. "We think there's going to be a big opportunity with the Oprah audience searching for something different. But we're obviously just not going with the regular talk-show type thing. This is a pretty different looking news show."