What We Watch

Local stations seek the right viewership

By Ryan Robbins
Special to the NEWS

Bangor television stations are once again in the midst of a ratings period. But they would rather not have to deal with the clump of network specials that come every February, May, July and November.

Earlier this month, Nielsen Media Research mailed the first of approximately 380 TV viewing diaries to randomly selected households throughout the Bangor market, a ritual that was also done in 171 other television markets across the country. Based on what viewers say they watched, Nielsen compiles ratings that stations use to set advertising rates and choose programming.
The networks pre-empt less popular shows during sweeps in favor of special programming, which inflates ratings. Because Nielsen provides overnight ratings year round for the networks, sweeps mean little to them, but they are a necessary evil.
"The sweeps are still important to the networks because they have affiliates they need to satisfy," says Karen Kratz, manager of communications for Nielsen.
But local broadcasters aren't satisfied.
Such original programming, called "stunting," hurts stations in small markets like Bangor -- ranked 155th out of 211 -- because it generates ratings that don't accurately reflect viewing habits during non-sweeps periods, says WABI, Channel 5, Programming Director Steve Hiltz.
"I don't like what the networks do, and that is personal opinion," Hiltz says. "It doesn't benefit the viewer, it doesn't benefit the station and it certainly doesn't benefit an advertiser on a local level when there's stunting going on."
How can stations sell advertising for programs the network pre-empted with specials during sweeps? Hiltz asks.
"Advertising agencies and buyers are very sophisticated," says WVII, Channel 7, advertising manager Mike Paquette. "They look at trending. They just don't go buy on one book. They see what a time period has done over a course of years and books. Sometimes they might trend up to 10 books."
"If you stunt with programming, at least it's apples to apples," says WLBZ, Channel 2, general manager Judy Horan. "What you're trying to do sometimes is just raise enough interest that someone will sample your station or your network."
Hiltz and Horan would like to see year-round ratings, which would eliminate stunting. But such an endeavor would be expensive. Nielsen provides year-round ratings for only 39 of the larger markets.
"Continuous measurement is something we really, really would like to stress because the more data you can get in, the more exact your ratings are going to be," Kratz says. "But we really have to get a general consensus from all our clients on that. It's really up in the air."

The Numbers

Newscasts from Bangor's Big Three network affiliates are the most-watched programs in the Bangor market. In May, the three stations' 6 p.m. week-day newscasts were watched by about 44 percent of all TV households in the market, or by 77 percent of households that were watching television at 6 p.m.
Like most markets, newscasts in the Bangor market provide the most fierce competition among stations. WLBZ has run print ads that say, "Every day more people get their news from News Center than any other television news organization in the state!" and "More people get their news on WLBZ News Center 2 than anywhere else in eastern and central Maine."
But what WLBZ doesn't say is it counts viewers who watch its Portland sister station's News Center (WCSH, Channel 6), which is tops in the much larger Portland market. The Portland market has 345,000 television households compared to Bangor's 127,000.
Hiltz says WLBZ's claim is misleading and unprofessional, but Horan disagrees.
"It's not misleading in the slightest," Horan says. "We take ownership in those newscasts the same way Portland takes ownership in those newscasts."
WABI's 5:30 p.m., 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts won all three sweeps this past season. In May, more people watched WABI's 6 p.m. newscast than News Center and WVII combined, with a 44 share, followed by WLBZ (25) and WVII (8). A share is the percentage of households watching television that watched a particular program.
Despite a strong showing at 6 p.m., WABI's newscast was off by 3 share points from May 1996. WLBZ was also off its May 1996 showing by 3 points. WVII's news, on the other hand, was up 4 points.
"People are finally giving us a look," WVII's Paquette says. "I think we're promoting enough so people at least are giving us a look-see, and some people are staying."
The race was a lot closer for the 5:30 p.m. newscast, though. WABI had a 23 share while WLBZ had a 21 share. WVII finished third with a 13 share.
Paquette says it's not unusual for viewers who watch the 5:30 newscasts to switch stations for the 6 o'clock news. "A lot of it has to do with habit. People feel comfortable with a newscast. A lot of people, over the years, have watched Channel 5. And Channel 5 has dominated this market for a long time."


The media often talk about which programs win the most households. But what really counts isn't so much how many people are watching but who is watching.
WVII's "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!" had shares of 33 and 32 respectively in May, beating WLBZ's syndicated re-runs of "Home Improvement" (25) and "Seinfeld" (25). But the Bangor market is made up of older viewers, and the 50-and-older audience that "Wheel" and "Jeopardy!" attract isn't as important to advertisers as the younger audience for "Home Improvement" and "Seinfeld."
"'Wheel' and 'Jeopardy!' can win the households all they want," Hiltz says. "But we don't want those shows."
Advertisers are most interested in reaching people ages 18-49, especially women between the ages of 25 and 54. "These women tend to be either in the work force or they're starting to buy things," Hiltz says. Also, women watch more television than men.
Because consumers are watching "Home Improvement," advertisers are willing to pay more to air their ads on that program than on the higher household-rated "Wheel."
Hiltz ran "Entertainment Tonight" and "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" last season. Both shows were failures. In May, "ET" had an 8 share. "Fresh Prince" had a 6 share. WABI has since deep-sixed the shows in favor of running "classic" episodes of "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine."
"Home Improvement" and "Seinfeld" are in their second year on WLBZ, but both shows' ratings have remained steady. Hiltz says it's puzzling that people are more interested in seeing repeats rather than watching a fresh edition of "Entertainment Tonight," but he's not surprised.
"That is what's going to happen," he says. "('Home Improvement' and 'Seinfeld') get a lot of buzz. You can go to the water cooler at work and share a few ha-ha-has."

Programming Changes

Now that the dust has settled from the 1996-97 season, local programming directors have to decide what they're going to do for next season.
WABI has already picked up a few new shows for the fall. The station will be showing syndicated re-runs of "The X-Files" one night a week, but no decision has been made on the night or time. Fans of "Due South," which ran for one season on CBS a few years ago, will be happy to know the show will return in syndication to WABI with new shows, as the program is now showing on Canadian network CBC.
Two new syndicated shows will also debut on WABI: "Gene Rodenberry's Earth: Final Conflict" and a new Martha Stewart program.
WVII will keep "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!" in their current spots and will add "Grace Under Fire" at 5 p.m.
WLBZ says it has yet to make programming decisions for the fall.

A version of this story appeared in the Sept. 19, 1997, edition of the Bangor Daily News.

Copyright 1997, Ryan R. Robbins