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WJLA Grabs Top Spot At 11 p.m. From WRC
Channel 4 Was First for Nearly Decade

By John Maynard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 30, 2007

For the first time in nearly a decade, WRC's 11 p.m. newscast was knocked from atop the ratings among local stations.

WJLA (Channel 7) is the new leader at that hour, edging NBC-owned WRC (Channel 4) in the Nielsen ratings for the November "sweeps" period that concluded Wednesday. "This is a milestone for us," WJLA President Fred Ryan said yesterday.

WJLA's 11 p.m. newscast, anchored by Leon Harris and Maureen Bunyan, averaged 125,000 viewers Monday through Sunday this month, compared with WRC's viewership of 124,000. They were trailed by WUSA (Channel 9) with 118,000 viewers and the 16-month-old newscast on WTTG (Channel 5), which drew 93,000.

WTTG, however, had the top-rated "late night" newscast; its 10 p.m. news, which does not face a competing newscast, averaged 169,000 viewers.

Some executives said that WJLA appeared to benefit from the Writers Guild strike. "The Tonight Show" on WRC, which has aired repeats during the strike, drew fewer viewers than it did during the same period last year, and "Late Show" on WUSA, also in reruns, was flat from year-to-year. "Nightline" on WJLA, on the other hand, which aired new episodes, increased its viewership. (Those shows, which immediately follow the 11 p.m. newscasts, serve as "tent poles" for viewers moving from prime time to late night.)

WJLA's Ryan, however, discounted the idea that the strike affected news ratings. "I don't buy the argument that because the late-night comedy shows were on writers' strike that that somehow benefited our newscast," he said.

Unlike WRC and WUSA, WJLA improved its 11 p.m. lead-in audience, boosted by such highly rated shows as Tuesday's "Dancing With the Stars" finale.

More than one industry executive griped about WJLA's recent, heavily promoted "Hannah Montana" ticket giveaway on the station's 11 p.m. newscast. "That really is a big change for a really sophisticated news market like Washington, D.C.," said Vicki Burns, WRC's vice president of news.

Ryan said he's "not surprised" about the criticism, but he said there were only four days of actual promotion and ticket giveaways.

WRC's second-place finish at 11 p.m. was part of an overall dismal ratings period for the station. Although it did manage to finish first among total viewers in all other newscasts in which it goes head-to-head with competitors, the station was down from last year in every time slot -- in both total viewership and within the advertiser-cherished 25-to-54 age demographic.

WRC's late newscast was preceded by numerous poorly rated NBC prime-time shows, such as "Journeyman" and "Life." "Obviously, there is a prime-time effect," Burns said.

This ratings period represented the first November since NBC-mandated budget cutbacks led to significant departures from the news staff, most notably critic Arch Campbell, news anchor Susan Kidd and sports anchor George Michael, who rejected a new contract.

"I don't know how you could track any kind of effect there," Burns said. "For us, we really think it's prime time and the impact of the writers' strike. It's a perfect storm of conditions."

WUSA, which has performed poorly in many past sweeps periods, had encouraging ratings increases under General Manager Allan Horlick, who is in his first year at the station, and new news director Mike Ward. The station increased viewership in the 25-to-54 demographic in all its newscasts except at 11 p.m. The 25-to-54 demographic "is the whole ballgame for us and everyone in broadcasting," Horlick said. "It's great fun for us to be in the game again."

WTTG, which is losing its veteran news chief Katherine Green to CNN next month, also gained more 25-to-54 viewers and showed gains in nearly every time slot.

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