WJZ-TV lost almost half of its 5 p.m. news audience in a key demographic during the May sweeps in the wake of a controversial question by anchorwoman Mary Bubala and her subsequent firing, according to figures confirmed by the Nielsen Co. and WJZ.
While ratings can be read, analyzed and spun in many ways, the link between the Bubala controversy and the ratings loss among viewers 25-54, the age group on which the vast majority of advertising sales for newscasts are made, is clear.
The May sweeps ratings period ran from April 25 to May 22.
For weekdays during the period from April 25 to May 3 when Bubala was still co-anchor of WJZ’s 5 p.m. newscast, it averaged a 1.6 rating.
(A 1.0 rating equals 10,778 adults between ages 25 and 54.)
From May 6 to May 22, with her no longer at the anchor desk, the 5 p.m. telecast averaged a 0.84 rating among viewers 25 to 54.
That’s a 46% audience loss.
In live, on-air coverage on May 2 of the resignation of Mayor Catherine Pugh, Bubala asked a guest expert about leadership at City Hall.
“We’ve had three female, African-American mayors in a row,” Bubala said. “They were all passionate public servants. Two resigned, though. Is this a signal that a different kind of leadership is needed to move Baltimore City forward?”
Amid much criticism on social media of the question, Bubala did not appear on the 11 p.m. newscast, which she regularly co-anchored, that night. But she did appear the next evening — Friday, May 3 — on the 5 p.m. telecast.
It was her last night on the air at WJZ.
Bubala was fired the following Monday (May 6), with the news of the firing first reported online by The Sun the morning of Tuesday, May 7.
It is impossible to determine from this data whether viewers tuned out because they were unhappy about Bubala’s question or the station’s decision to fire her for it.
Overall, in week-to-week Nielsen measurements, WJZ’s 5 p.m. newscast went from having a 1.45 rating in Week 1, to a 1.30 during Week 2.
It then went to .78 in Week 3, and .62 during Week 4.
That’s a loss of 57% of audience from the the first to the last week of May sweeps with viewers 25 to 54.
Audra Swain, vice president and general manager of WJZ, acknowledged the 46% loss in ratings points among viewers 25 to 54, but said in an email that the station lost only 38% of its audience share in May sweeps in the wake of the Bubala controversy and firing.
(Ratings are the percentage of all TV homes in a given universe, like the Baltimore market. Share is the percentage of those with TV’s in use at the time of measurement.)
Ratings and shares are both valid measurements. WBAL, for example, sends out emails for sales that use ratings points as the unit of measurement to make the station’s case to potential advertisers.
Furthermore, “Nielsen ratings” are the accepted language used by the industry and the general public to discuss a station’s viewership performance.
But either way, 46% or 38% is a big loss in this market, especially in a sweeps period, and WJZ is not disputing that the controversy had an effect. Swain did, though, cite other factors for the loss in an email response to The Baltimore Sun.
“Evening news viewership in May is often fluid and largely impacted by breaking news and warmer weather,” she wrote in an email response to The Sun.
“During the first week of the sweep, we had extremely high viewership levels due to the raids on the former mayor’s homes and offices and her subsequent resignation. Our share of audience in weeks 2-4 was down 38% in Adults 25-54. This change is likely attributed to WJZ being the breaking news station of choice in the market, as demonstrated during the mayoral coverage in week one.”
WBAL makes a similar claim in terms of breaking news, a term that can be defined different ways by different stations. It is a claim impossible to verify based on the term’s subjectivity.
Swain praised WJZ’s 5 p.m. co-anchor Rick Ritter in her email and expressed “absolute confidence” in Nicole Baker, who has been co-anchoring with him.
Pointing to the 11 p.m. newscast, which Bubala also co-anchored, Swain said, “WJZ saw zero decline in viewership in the demo for that same time frame.”
In the new digital landscape, May sweeps are not as important as they used to be in setting ad rates across the summer, but they are still one of the most competitive periods in broadcast TV when networks and local stations try to put their best content on display, because sales across several months are still made on the basis of them.
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And while TV ad sales have become more sophisticated in the digital age with myriad ways, such as income and political preference, to drill down on a specific age group, adults 25 to 54 are still far and away the key demographic for the buying and selling of advertising time in newscasts.