The audience for local television news dropped significantly in the first major sweeps period that used a controversial new method of measuring Washington area viewers.
The results from Nielsen Media Research's new Local People Meter system reflect ratings declines -- in some cases, steep decreases -- for many of Washington's newscasts when compared with numbers recorded in November 2004 using a discontinued method.
On June 30, Washington joined six other U.S. markets by switching to LPMs after years of relying on household meters and paper diaries during the major sweeps months of February, May and November to gather specific demographic information.
The meters, wired in about 600 Washington area homes, are designed to capture a more accurate and immediate picture of TV audiences via technology that records individuals' minute-by-minute viewing habits.
Local station executives have been contending since before LPMs rolled out that the new system is undercounting minority and younger viewers and households with large families. In June, Nielsen agreed to delay the launch of LPMs by a month after complaints by all of Washington's major broadcast stations.
"We were crying about Nielsen and their methodology before, and I think we have sort of pulled back to see if these guys can work out some solutions they said they were going to put in place," Duffy Dyer, general manager of Fox-owned WTTG, said yesterday.
Despite continued reservations about the new system, however, Dyer said his station will work with the latest ratings to set advertising rates.
"We own these numbers. This is what we got," he said. "We'll live with them until we're more pleased with the methodology."
"We don't look back anymore year to year," said Vickie Burns, WRC's vice president of news. "The universe of ratings changed with LPMs this summer, and so we're now measuring in an LPM world."
Some of the biggest drops among total viewers came in the 5 and 6 p.m. newscasts, times for which the four stations experienced a double-digit percentage drop from the previous year.
In early mornings -- considered a growth area for the stations as many viewers wake up earlier and commute longer -- numbers were down nearly across the board. Only WUSA, Channel 9, saw an uptick; the station is now second in early mornings, although still far behind ratings leader WRC.
WJLA General Manager Fred Ryan believes the new LPM technology is to blame for the sluggish early morning numbers. "Unlike other day parts, people are in a rush," he said. "They don't want to try to get this new remote-control device that they have and figure out which different button they have to push in order to put on their television set.
"They just want to put the set on."
NBC-owned WRC, Channel 4, was the top-rated newscast in November in all time slots where it goes head-to-head with the other stations' news shows. In May, WJLA, Channel 7, became the first station in six years to beat WRC in a competitive newscast, winning at 5 p.m. -- thanks in part to the surging "Oprah Winfrey Show" last spring.
"We said last May that we really thought WJLA was benefiting from an 'Oprah' phenomenon, and good for them," WRC's Burns said. "But we also believe it did not signal any kind of weakness in our position, and I think that's been proven."
WJLA was able to significantly increase its audience in the key 18-to-49 and 25-to-54 demographics that advertisers crave in the key 5, 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts. The station's biggest jump was during the 5 p.m. newscast, which saw an almost 50 percent increase among 18-to-49-year-old viewers from last year.
WTTG's late newscast, which airs at 10, was No. 1 among late-night newscasts in those desired demographics.