Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this article mistakenly stated that Channel 7's 5 p.m. news is co-anchored by Leon Harris and Maureen Bunyan. The newscast is anchored by Harris and Kathleen Matthews. This version has been corrected.

WJLA Climbs Over WRC In Evening News Ratings

Channel 7's Gordon Peterson and Maureen Bunyan had a big climb in viewers.
Channel 7's Gordon Peterson and Maureen Bunyan had a big climb in viewers. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By John Maynard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 27, 2005

It's been six years and 23 sweeps periods but ratings champ WRC (Channel 4) has finally dropped to second place in a head-to-head news battle.

WJLA, Channel 7, is the new leader at 5 p.m., the only evening time period when all four news stations put on a show. It eked out a win over Channel 4 for the first time since May 1999. The Kathleen Matthews-Leon Harris anchored program averaged 135,000 households in the time slot -- about 10,000 more than Channel 4.

Of course, Channel 7 owes Oprah Winfrey a big hug. "The Oprah Winfrey Show," which airs directly before Channel 7's 5 p.m. newscast, had a remarkable May, attracting nearly 185,000 homes. That's a whopping 70 percent better than last year and represents her best D.C. numbers in eight years.

WJLA Vice President of News Bill Lord acknowledged that "audi ence flow is a very big factor" but contends that the station has been blessed with the Oprah lead-in for years. "We've always had the audience lead-in issue at 5 p.m.," he said. "Yet there has been a change in news viewing habits."

Channel 4 President and General Manager Michael Jack said that unfortunately for the other stations in town, Winfrey is "the local equivalent of 'American Idol.' She had a phenomenal ratings book."

Nonetheless, Jack was gracious in defeat. "My hat's off to WJLA. Somebody else in town deserves to win every once in a while." (In the February 2003 sweeps, Channel 5, WTTG, actually had the most-watched late night news, beating Channel 4, but its newscast airs an hour earlier at 10 p.m.)

Channel 4 can crow that despite its second-place finish at 5 p.m. it is still tops in every other newscast slot from early morning to late night, showing growth in every program from last year. It also once again claimed the title of top station in all programming from sign-on to sign-off.

But that didn't stop Channel 7 from breaking open the Dom Perignon Wednesday night. Its 6 p.m. newscast, anchored by Bunyan and Gordon Peterson, is up nearly 50 percent and is nipping at the heels of Channel 4. (It also didn't hurt that ABC's "World News Tonight," which follows at 6:30, is the top-watched national newscast in town.)

At 11 p.m., Channel 7 remains in third but improved by 35 percent. And its two hour early-morning newscast jumped about 20 percent. It's too early to say if this is a continuing trend. May was a cool, wet month in Washington. A lot of folks found themselves stuck inside in front of the tube.

WUSA, Channel 9, may be the first in town to deliver its news in HDTV but it's still last in the ratings in most of its newscasts. The station's gorgeous new set and snazzy graphics, designed to enhance the digital experience, failed to move the ratings needle when compared with last May's non-HDTV broadcasts. The station is down in mornings and took a big hit at 5 and 6 p.m.

But it remains competitive with Channel 4 at 11 p.m. In the late-night wars, Channel 4 is tops with 180,000 homes and Channel 9, with help from a strong prime-time lineup, trailed by 40,000 homes.

Channel 5 showed growth in its early-morning newscast from last year, remaining barely ahead of a surging Channel 7, but finishing a distant second behind Channel 4. Channel 5's 10 p.m. news is up from last year as well; it averages about 170,000 homes.

For national news junkies: In face-to-face competition on the Sunday morning talk show circuit, NBC's "Meet the Press" is tops in town, averaging 83,000 homes over CBS's "Face the Nation" audience of 60,000 at 10:30. At 9, "Fox News Sunday," which falls last nationally, is third in D.C. with about 43,000 homes vs. "This Week's" audience of 29,000 on ABC.

ABC's "World News Tonight" at 6:30 beat CBS's "Evening News" by a score of 160,000 to 80,000. NBC's "Nightly News," which airs a half hour later, garnered 157,000.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company