Hard Times in the Big Easy

Sweeps is under way across the country, but the specials and stunts are not having an effect in New Orleans. For the third time since Hurricane Katrina lashed the Gulf Coast, New Orleans is being forced to sit out a ratings period.

Nielsen is challenged to amass enough participants for an accurate survey, and forming a new sample would be difficult since there is no reliable data on the area population. Local media executives estimate that November 2006 will be the earliest that ratings will be restored, but Nielsen says it does not have a definitive timetable.

The lack of Nielsen data—the currency for TV-ad sales—is forcing media buyers and station managers in the Big Easy to improvise. At ad agency Zehnder Communications, for example, media buyers are using old ratings books and current national ratings to estimate local numbers and negotiate rates. For example, if NBC's My Name Is Earl is being watched by 5% of adults 25-54 in the national ratings, Zehnder planners estimate the show is getting a 5 rating locally.

“We're taking tidbits of data,” explains Zehnder Media Director Joann Habisreitinger. “We have to use estimates and go with the flow.”

Similarly, station salespeople are dusting off old books and polling affiliates in other Southern markets for ratings.

Even without ratings, local executives say business is slowly improving. Tribune owns the local WB and ABC affiliates and says the duopoly's revenue is about 50%-60% of what it was pre-Katrina—up from 30% in October.

With some residents returning, auto dealers, furniture stores and home- improvement retailers are advertising aggressively. The insurance and help-wanted categories are also strong.

“We are doing much better than anticipated,” says Bud Brown, general manager of Belo Corp.'s top-rated CBS affiliate WWL. “We're getting local advertisers on the air, and we see the market returning.”

But with a labor shortage in New Orleans, Brown says, some businesses, including fast-food and some retail, have been slower to return.

Before hundreds of thousands of residents fled in late August, New Orleans was the No. 43 TV market, with 1.6 million viewers. Post-Katrina, estimates call for the market to shrink to about 1 million viewers. But it will be hard for Nielsen to get a firm count until the government conducts a census, which could happen later this year. In the interim, the ratings service could work with FEMA and Congressional Research Services to cobble together a tally.

Some stations are doing their own research: WWL contracted research firm GCR to track the migration and deliver demographic estimates. “We're trying to help buyers in the absence of Nielsens,” says WWL's Brown.

Further complicating estimates, say local execs, are short-term living situations. Some residents are staying with family members in the area but are not counted as a separate household. Other New Orleaneans are temporarily living in other cities and planning their return. Officials expect a large number to come back this summer, after their children finish the school year.

Losing African-Americans

Even so, local media executives agree that the audience in New Orleans has been dramatically altered, and many African-American residents who left the city are not expected to return. The loss of those viewers is likely to impact the young-skewing stations: CBS-owned UPN outlet WUPL, Tribune's WB affiliate WNOL and Emmis' Fox station WVUE.

At the same time, the Hispanic population is expected to increase as temporary workers settle in the region. New Orleans has several Spanish-language radio stations but no TV stations. “We are asking clients to use Hispanic media that they've never considered before,” says Habisreitinger.

Nearby Louisiana cities are making gains. Baton Rouge and Lafayette have seen population increases. During November sweeps, stations in those markets reported higher ratings. “They've seen a bump in news and for some urban programming,” says Habisreitinger.

Biloxi, Miss., also hard hit, will have its first ratings book since Katrina this month.

But, for broadcasters in New Orleans, the rebuilding continues. During the storm, all but WWL were knocked off the air and now need to repair and improve facilities. WWL has postponed building a new facility. Tribune's WNOL and ABC affiliate WGNO suffered severe damage to their building and must find new headquarters.

Station managers remain steadfast. “New Orleans will come back strong,” says Tribune Broadcasting CEO John Reardon. “There is too much to be gained there.”