NEWS- Tea leaves: Ratings thrill Newsplex... and NBC29
When Cvillenews.com posted Nielsen ratings for local television news, one interpretation was obvious: "NBC29 news trouncing competition," is how that website put it.
More than three years after WCAV CBS19 first went on the air– soon to be joined by its sister station, WVAW ABC16– NBC29 still commands a staggering lead in local news. Gray Television's new kids in town over at the Newsplex are closing the gap in prime time, and both stations say they're pleased with the latest ratings.
The February Nielsens show an average of 16,282 people watching NBC29 News at Sunrise at 6am, compared to 193 tuned to ABC16 and 562 waking up to CBS19, both of which are airing Good Morning Charlottesville.
By the 6pm newscasts, NBC29 clocks in with 30,301 viewers while just 1,468 are watching CBS19, and at 7pm, a mere 1,094 viewers tune in to ABC16's news.
Newsplex news director Jeremy Settle challenges the Nielsen methodology that includes NBC29's numbers in Augusta County and Harrisonburg, where the Newsplex doesn't compete.
"I don't think it's fair," says Settle, calling such contrasts "apples and oranges." He suggests looking at "their losses and our gains."
The Newsplex carries highly rated prime time shows like American Idol, 24, and Lost– or at least it does when writers aren't on strike. Although NBC hasn't led national prime time in years, the Peacock Network still draws the most viewers locally, according to the average February Nielsens, which show NBC29 with 9,748 weeknight watchers, followed by 6,170 tuned into FOX27 WAHU (another Newsplex station), 3,166 watching CBS19, and 3,062 on ABC16.
"You're telling me no one watches American Idol or Desperate Housewives?" Settle asks incredulously.
In the February 2005 prime time ratings, NBC29 pulled in an average 11,886 viewers, while CBS19 had 656 and ABC16 had 534.
"Every ratings book is better than the previous book, and that's all we can hope for," says Newsplex general manager Roger Burchett. "We're very thrilled with our book."
Gray Television came to town with a three-year plan, and now– in the third year– both ratings and revenues exceed expectations, he says. "We couldn't be happier."
Meanwhile, Atlanta-based Gray, which owns 36 stations in 30 markets, ended 2007 with a financial loss of $24.8 million– 52 cents per share, compared with earnings of 17 cents a share in 2006, the Atlanta Business Chronicle reported March 13.
With four stations– add MyC'villeTV– trying to elbow aside hometown NBC29, some wonder if the Newsplex is making any money.
Ratings affect advertising decisions, says Susan Payne at Payne, Ross & Associates, an advertising firm. "Channel 29 charges more for a 30-second spot because they reach a larger audience," she explains. But some clients may not need the large market NBC29 reaches in the Shenandoah Valley.
"People may travel here for restaurants, but not for shoes," Payne suggests. Her agency buys time from both NBC29 and Newsplex, depending on the client.
Early in the Newsplex's Charlottesville life, there may have been questions about whether they'd survive, but no more, says Payne. "I do think they're improving. They're not trending down."
"Great local news coverage drives audiences as much as anything," maintains Pam Fitzgerald at the Ivy Group advertising/PR firm. "When you buy local news, it's a known quantity. Entertainment is a more diffuse market" in which to reach a target audience.
"Channel 29 is well established," she says. "They have loyal viewers. Anyone coming in has a challenge."
But the Newsplex still can make money because a lot of local media buying is price driven, Fitzgerald says.
NBC29 general manager Harold Wright thinks the reason his station leads in local news is simple: "We produce a good product." He credits owner Waterman Broadcasting for investing in people and equipment. "We're one of only two stations that have a bureau in Richmond," he says.
And with 50 people in the news department at NBC29, "We have the largest television news west of Richmond," says Wright.
The station just bought an expensive satellite truck– the only one in Central Virginia, according to Wright– that "hasn't been here long enough to put the logo on," he says.
Wright points out that television stations make more money from local news than prime time, where a local station can sell only six spots per hour compared to 22 spots on a local newscast.
And Wright thinks there's more to being the leading station than 8-11pm prime-time viewers. "We have skilled anchors, skilled reporters," he says. "That's why people watch."
The ratings battle will continue locally, with broadcasters beset not only by competing stations, but by competing media such as cable, Internet, radio, and print.
"All media," Fitzgerald notes, "are facing a more challenging market."