Over the past year, the local television stations and networks airing the teams and events that make this one of the nation's best sports TV markets have been more challenged than ever to draw or maintain viewers.
The Baltimore Orioles in 1998 missed the playoffs for the first time in three seasons, the Washington Redskins missed the postseason for the sixth straight year, and the lockout of NBA players resulted in the cancellation of 32 games of the 1998-99 season.
Along the way, the local sports audience continues to be watered down by the number of teams and events on TV and the influence of home satellite systems for better selection of national games.
While Washington is the eighth-largest TV market nationally, it is so splintered by over-saturation of games and the transient nature of the Washington populace that a 2.0 rating -- or 38,566 TV households -- is considered a good audience for any local sports telecast, with the big exception of professional football.
"We forget that sports is ultimately entertainment and if they're exciting and show prospects for the future, the numbers will be good," said general manager Mike Nurse of WBDC (Channel 50), which airs about 100 professional baseball, basketball and hockey games featuring local teams. "But when you look at the bottom line, the teams have got to win and even then it's no guarantee people will tune in. The only team in this market that is an exception to that is the Redskins."
Despite last season's 6-10 record, the Redskins still mustered a 23.9 rating and 47 percent share of the audience -- a solid figure that ranked fifth in the NFL for local TV viewership behind Dallas, Green Bay, Atlanta and San Francisco. (The rating is the percentage of TV homes in the market tuned to the game. The share is the percentage of TVs actually in use that are tuned to the contest.)
The Redskins had audience shares in the 50s three times last season and averaged a 22.2 rating the last month, when their playoff hopes were gone.
But even with such audiences, 1998 was the fourth consecutive year (all since Fox won the rights to National Football Conference games) that Redskins viewership declined. The 47 share is an 11 percent decrease from 1997, 14 percent from a 55 share in '96, and 21 percent from a 59 in 1995.
NFL ratings have been in decline most of this decade. The Redskins' audience share during their prime from 1987 to '92 was consistently in the 60s.
"Two things stand out with the Redskins' numbers," said Brad Dancer, researcher at WTTG (Channel 5), Washington's Fox affiliate. "First, is the viewing level. It's way down. There's a variety of reasons. It could be the weather was mild and people were out doing other things, or people suddenly realized the Redskins weren't going to be what they expected. Secondly, these are the lowest levels for the team here in Washington since Fox got the NFL. The Redskins still have a core following and it's okay to lose [viewers] for a while, but to keep losing and keep losing? . . ."
Of all the local teams on TV in the past year, only the Washington Capitals, who reached the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in '98, and D.C. United, champions of Major League Soccer in 1996 and '97, showed a ratings hike.
But the percentages may be deceptive, representing relatively small numbers. The Capitals climbed 10 percent -- to just a 1.0 rating, or 20,000 TV households. D.C. United moved up 17 percent to a 0.7 rating, or 14,000 households.
"It's no different for the Caps on TV than at the gate," said Ted Ewanciw, senior manager of communications at Home Team Sports, the regional cable sports channel. "When the team is winning and putting a good production on the ice, people want tickets and they want to watch it on TV."
As for D.C. United, it's a mystery why the strong youth and amateur soccer community in the Washington area has not elevated the professional team's ratings.
"We know our soccer viewership in Washington is very savvy, right up there with New York, Los Angeles and Chicago," added Ewanciw. "It's a core group that is very dedicated to soccer."
There is a new player in the viewing market -- the Washington Mystics of the Women's National Basketball Association.
The Mystics began play last summer and despite a 3-27 record, averaged a league-high announced attendance of 15,910 fans per game. Ten telecasts on ESPN, Lifetime, WRC (Channel 4) and WDCA (Channel 20) averaged a 1.7 rating, or about 32,000 households in this market. On two dates on Channel 20, the Mystics had better ratings than Orioles games on Channel 50. Nationally, the WNBA on NBC drew a 1.6 rating, or 1.3 million households, in 13 telecasts.
"If they had a better team, it shows they'd have better ratings," said Mike Schroeder, director of programming and operations at Channel 20, pointing to an overtime loss against the New York Liberty. The game started out with a 1.6 rating, but by the final 15-minute ratings period during the overtime, the figure had climbed to 4.1, or 79,000 homes.
"We have been embraced full force by the city and didn't expect it," said Julie Demeo, public relations director for the Mystics, whose lowest-rated game (0.4, on July 21 against Charlotte) was still a sellout at MCI Center.
The most telling of viewer trends over the past year is that some things never change. The NBA Wizards and college hoops draw audiences that rarely fluctuate to extreme highs or lows through the course of the regular season. For example, the Wizards have one playoff appearance in the past 17 years but they continue to draw a steady 1.5 on HTS and a 3.0 on Channel 50. Even when the Wizards made the playoffs two seasons ago, their ratings didn't climb significantly until the postseason.
"There is a core of Wizards fans that is non-stop, both in terms of TV viewers and a ticket base," Ewanciw said.
The Orioles are Washington's second-favorite team to watch, drawing around a 2.5 rating, or 50,000 households, on HTS in 1998 and roughly a 4.0 rating, or 77,132 households, on Channel 50. That is a fairly consistent viewership this decade, suggesting that metro Washington is a good baseball area regardless of whether the Orioles are in the pennant race.
"The Orioles double the number of viewers we normally get, whether it's in Washington or Baltimore," Ewanciw said. "The Orioles have never had the same type of problems getting fans to the game and watching on TV that other teams had after the  strike. Now, you have to look at the fact that Cal Ripken was going after the record for playing in the most consecutive games the year after the strike.
"But the fact is, there still aren't too many people disguised as empty seats at the games."
CAPTION: Attendance and viewership don't necessarily go hand in hand. Here, Michael Christensen watches the Orioles from his seat at a 1997 Redskins game.