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With Strike-Affected Lineups, Local Stations' Ratings Dip

By John Maynard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 29, 2008

The recently resolved Hollywood writers' strike took its toll on local ratings during the February sweeps period that ended Wednesday.

Prime-time ratings declined last month compared with the same period in 2007 for nearly all Washington stations, which because of the strike aired more reruns and reality programming. The dip in prime-time viewership in turn affected ratings for some of the station's late-night and early-morning newscasts.

"The writers' strike had a huge impact," said Allan Horlick, president and general manager of CBS affiliate WUSA (Channel 9). "Many people in this business believe that the single greatest factor in determining a late-night rating is the prime-time lead-in. Likewise, the morning news of the TV channel that was on when you went to sleep is the beneficiary."

WUSA viewership dropped nearly 50 percent from last year, although last February the station was buoyed by Super Bowl ratings. WRC (Channel 4), WJLA (Channel 7) and WDCW (Channel 50) also had decreases -- although less dramatic -- in viewership.

Fox-owned WTTG (Channel 5) weathered the strike the best, benefiting from Fox's telecast of the Super Bowl and 13 hours of "American Idol" programming. WTTG's average 8-to-10 p.m. audience (357,000 viewers) was more than twice that of second-place finisher WJLA (163,000 viewers).

WTTG had the most watched "late night" newscast. Its 10 p.m. newscast, anchored by Brian Bolter and Shawn Yancy, drew 212,000 viewers. (No other local newscasts air at 10 p.m.)

"It's very helpful -- you can't say anything negative about it," Phil Metlin, WTTG's vice president and news director, said about having "American Idol" -- which routinely has more than 30 million viewers nationwide -- on the station's prime-time schedule. "But it's not always the lead-in."

WTTG also improved in early-morning ratings over last year, drawing 62,000 viewers and edging perennial winner WRC at 5 a.m.

WJLA was the month's other success story, showing increases in early-morning and late-night audiences. At 11 p.m., the station drew 121,000 viewers, up nearly 40,000 from last February. In early morning, too, the station's numbers increased at both 5 and 6 a.m.

"Our year-to-year growth has been phenomenal," said Bill Lord, WJLA's vice president of news.

Except for the 5 a.m. hour, WRC had the top-rated newscasts throughout the day at times that it had head-to-head competition. But the station continues to lose viewership, with all its newscasts declining in audience. Its biggest drop was at 6 p.m., where it lost nearly 30 percent of its audience over last year.

WRC -- which airs the programming of low-rated NBC -- was the only station that had its 11 p.m. newscast outdraw its prime-time lead-in show.

WUSA has most radically changed its anchor lineups since last year, but that has not resulted in increased viewership. Its 5 and 7 p.m. newscasts, anchored by Derek McGinty and new anchor Anita Brikman, declined over last year. At 6 and 11 p.m., the new pairing of Lesli Foster and Todd McDermott was not able to buoy the ratings.

Horlick, though, said he's "encouraged" by the anchor changes. He also said that all the stations in Washington are bunching together in the ratings for the prized 25-to-54 age demographic.

"It seems like with each month, the ratings of the four stations are getting closer and closer together," Horlick said. "A competitive market is a good thing for the viewers because everyone has to hustle."

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