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WMAQ win knocks Chicago for a loop

Dec 9, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Hold on to your hats.
A new news breeze swept through the Windy City in the recently concluded November late-news sweeps, with WMAQ, the NBC owned-and-operated station, dethroning WLS, the perennial late-news leader in the Chicago market, for the first time in 10 years. The score was 12.7 to 12.0 in household ratings.
But WLS, the ABC O&O, says the win by WMAQ is little more than hot air.
“MAQ is crowing over just 0.7 of a rating point” in late news Monday through Friday, said Emily Barr, WLS general manager. “It’s a big deal over a small victory. … Every other way you want to slice it [including late news on a Monday-through-Sunday basis], we’re No. 1.”
Moreover, advertisers don’t buy on household ratings, Ms. Barr added, they buy demos, and “it’s always been a horse race” between the two stations when it comes to advertiser-desirable demographics.
“`Demo horse race?”’ Larry Wert, WMAQ president and general manager, shot back. “Looks like we are Secretariat.”
Mr. Wert acknowledged that advertisers do tend to buy demos, but added, “In an $800 million marketplace, [a] 0.7 [ratings victory] in the household world-that’s a big deal. It will pay some bills.”
In fact, Mr. Wert said, this sweeps household win for WMAQ is its first since the “Cheers” finale a decade ago and only its third in the past 28 years.
Rough road
But WMAQ’s road to the top has hardly been smooth. Just five years ago, in one of the classic missteps in local-news judgment, WMAQ hired talk-show host Jerry Springer, the emblematic figure of so-called Trash TV, to do commentaries.
The station promptly faced a revolt in its own news ranks, with two anchors quitting in protest. One of those anchors, Ron Magers, is now one of the lead anchors at rival WLS. The station also suffered advertiser defections at the time to the reported tune of more than $20 million.
“We ran into some turbulence,” Mr. Wert said of those days, and a “PR nightmare.” But the station regrouped, internal morale rose and “audience response was slow and steady.” Now, the November sweeps numbers seem to have put a “Paid in Full” stamp on that costly Springer-loaded debacle.
But the reasons for WMAQ’s resurgence aren’t quite as simple as renewed confidence from viewers, said Bill Kurtis, A&E Network’s longtime face and voice-and himself a Chicago news veteran who formerly anchored the news at Chicago’s CBS O&O WBBM.
For one thing, competitor WLS’s longtime lead anchor, John Drury, an avuncular but potent news symbol in the market, retired last March. The WMAQ November victory is “very significant simply because of the long run and dominance that Channel 7 has enjoyed,” Mr. Kurtis said, adding that the real reason for the win is “more subtle” than simply good stories and investigative journalism.
The Drury retirement was a big factor, he said. “Whenever change happens, it causes a ripple effect,” Mr. Kurtis said. “It gives an opportunity for a competitor to break through.”
Almost all local news teams proclaim themselves to be a “news family” these days, but families, on TV as well as off, are subject to the soap-opera-like vagaries of life. So even as its competitor’s family faced a beloved paternal figure’s departure from the scene, the WMAQ family was rocked by serious illness and sudden death.
Anchor Warner Saunders, who replaced Ron Magers after the Springer debacle, had surgery last February to remove a tumor discovered in his lower intestine, Mr. Wert said. Mr. Saunders was back on the air for the May sweeps, but is still in treatment, he added.
Meanwhile, on the very verge of the November sweeps, WMAQ’s news staff and viewers were shocked by the sudden death-at age 37-of popular sportscaster Darrian Chapman, who collapsed while playing in a hockey game. Mr. Chapman, young and recently married, was felled by a heart attack, as his father had been.
“This team had to report on this story,” Mr. Wert said. “It had to balance professionalism and human spirit.” As for the impact on the Chicago-area Nielsen families, “maybe there was some halo effect,” Mr. Wert said.
In fact, Mr. Kurtis noted that he, too, tuned in to WMAQ at the time to learn more about the station’s tragedies.
A more mundane halo effect that impacts any local news organization is the network’s prime-time lead-in. WLS is the only station that grows ratings and share from its 9:45 p.m. lead-in, said Ms. Barr. She also discounts the impact of the Drury retirement, noting that the station had a “perfectly great May book” after Mr. Drury left.
ABC’s prime time improved in November, Mr. Wert countered, while NBC’s was down. The WLS prime-time lead-in was up 20 percent on a year-to-year basis, he said, and yet WLS declined 2 percent in late news; WMAQ’s prime-time lead-in was down 3 percent on a year-to-year basis, and yet WMAQ was up 6 percent in late news.
Open to interpretation
Ms. Barr pointed out, however, that NBC is the overall prime-time leader, while ABC’s own improvements in the news lead-in period come from a much lower ratings base. “We’re not writing our obit over here,” she said.
Both she and Mr. Wert agreed that the household ratings race is more than anything else a “press metric” in the Chicago market. “I’d rather be first [in late news] seven days [a week] than five days [a week],” she said, and Mr. Wert agreed.
The bottom line in the Chicago news race has yet to be written, according to Mr. Kurtis, because one sweeps win does not a new news leader make. It will be the results of the February sweeps, and of the sweeps beyond that, that will determine whether Chicago has a new news leader, Mr. Kurtis said.