Though television broadcasting is known to be a cyclical business, cycles that turn TV ratings upside down are unusual. With ABC and CBS overtaking NBC nationally, it is an especially interesting-and anxious-time for local affiliates.
WTHR-TV Channel 13 has been the local news rating leader the last six years, but WISH-TV Channel 8 and WRTV-TV Channel 6 see this fall and winter as an opportune time to turn the tide.
One week into the critical Nov. 2-30 ratings sweeps, ABC and CBS were within tenths of a rating point of each other nationally and ahead of NBC. With the death of such blockbuster shows as "Friends," "Frasier" and "Seinfeld" and with other shows-like "West Wing"-on life support, NBC's decade-long reign at the top has come to a crashing halt, with ratings for the critical 18-49 age group lagging its two primary rivals more than 20 percent.
"This is a very complicated subject, but you can see in some instances the national ratings are already having an impact on the local numbers," said Bill Perkins, longtime local media buyer and president of Perkins Nichols Media.
Local TV news ratings are critical to affiliates because they control the entire ad inventory during those segments. The networks take the lion's share of advertising revenue during national telecasts, leaving affiliates with only one or two 30-second spots to sell every half hour.
Ads sold during local newscasts comprise 50 percent to 70 percent of an affiliate's revenue.
One of the strongest indicators of the importance of national ratings to local newscasts is the Sunday night late news. WRTV has for several years been third in local TV news ratings. But riding the heels of ABC's "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy," both among the top 12 prime time shows nationally, WRTV this sweeps period is capturing a 12 rating and 20 percent of the audience with its late Sunday news. WISH, riding the wave of CBS' Sunday movie, is scoring an 11.6 rating and 19-percent share. WTHR, following the slipping ratings of Law and Order, is scoring a 10.1 rating and a 17 share.
One rating point equals approximately 10,000 central Indiana homes.
Monday through Sunday, WTHR is still late-news leader with an 8.5 rating, while WISH has a 7.2 and WRTV has 6.3. But with ABC and CBS prime time shows throughout the week taking over almost all the top 20 spots nationally this fall, the gap could continue to close.
Ratings for national shows are critical because local affiliates promote their local news during those telecasts.
"ABC has made a 32-percent gain in prime-time ratings and 40 percent gain in audience share year to year," said WRTV General Manager Don Lundy. "This has allowed us to get more people in our tent to see our show."
WISH has the good fortune of riding the coattails of two of the highest rated national shows, "CSI" and "Without a Trace," which air back-to-back Thursday and lead into its late local news. In addition, CBS will carry 11 of the Indianapolis Colts' games, another ratings monster this year.
"The national telecasts are a tremendous promotional platform for us," said WISH General Manager Jeff White. "No question, it is having an impact."
As the ratings begin to reshuffle, so, too, will ad rates. Perkins hasn't seen huge rate shifts yet, but said it is likely coming. WISH and WRTV usually command $500-$700 for a 30-second spot during local news; WTHR charges $900-$1,100, industry sources said.
WTHR General Manager Rich Pegram isn't panicking.
"The story with the late news is yet to be told," Pegram said. "We have a history of overachieving the national ratings, and the other affiliates tend to underachieve."
While NBC's 20 percent-decline in national prime-time ratings is of concern, Pegram said, WTHR's success wasn't built entirely on NBC's foundation.
Perkins agrees that WTHR maintains some advantages. The station has built a strong brand identity in the many years it has dominated local news ratings, Perkins said. WTHR also has the highest-rated lead-in show for its 5 p.m. news, "The Oprah Winfrey Show," which it has locked up through 2011, and it has a stable of other popular syndicated lead-in shows like "Wheel of Fortune," "Ellen" and "Dr. Phil."
As a result, WTHR's early evening newscasts are earning more than double the ratings of WISH and WRTV.
Early-evening newscasts are important because affiliates have about twice as many 30-second spots to sell than during the late news, Perkins said, and audience numbers for the early news have held stronger than the late-night segment. But the late news is still important, he said, because it gives affiliates a chance to feed off the prime-time network shows to build their local news brand across the board.