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Market Eye: Down to the Wire

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Baltimore marks the War of 1812 bicentennial this summer, and the War of 2012 is being fought by its TV stations. Hearst Television’s WBAL and CBS’ WJZ have been in a tight race for years, but WJZ is making a strong case for market leader. The station took the morning and late news ratings titles in the November sweeps, along with primetime and total day ratings. In early February, The Baltimore Sun noted that WJZ swept January’s ratings races. “That defines dominance,” wrote Sun TV critic David Zurawik.

NBC affiliate WBAL has had some key departures. In January 2011, general manager Jordan Wertlieb moved to a corporate role at Hearst Television. In July, lead anchor Marianne Banister left. Last fall, Oprah Winfrey moved to cable. But Dan Joerres, WBAL president/general manager, suggests the Sun shouldn’t read too deeply into one month of ratings. “It’s still a two-horse race,” Joerres says. “The core of the station is stronger than it’s ever been.”

But there’s no denying WJZ, with a booming primetime and sharpened local content strategy, is gaining ground. WJZ posted an 8.6 household rating/16 share at 11 p.m. in November, ahead of WBAL’s 6/11. The two split the early evening news races. “In the land of [Nielsen] local people meters, we don’t worry about big months and small months,” says Jay Newman, WJZ president and general manager. “We consistently deliver quality news product.”

WJZ has a unique early evening setup, with local news 4-7 p.m. and CBS Evening News at 7, as opposed to the typical 6:30. Newman says WJZ has bolstered its weather game, with four weathercasters. That came in handy during last year’s blizzards, earthquake and hurricane. “Weather has really paid off for us,” he says.

Other competitors include Sinclair’s emerging Fox affiliate, WBFF, and Cunningham’s CW affiliate WNUV, which WBFF GM Bill Fanshawe manages through a shared services agreement. Scripps owns ABC affiliate WMAR. Fox has MyNetworkTV outlet WUTB. Comcast is the market’s primary subscription TV operator.

WBAL, WJZ and WBFF are clustered around what’s known as Television Hill, and their ratings are becoming more clustered, too. WBFF will add Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! this fall. A year ago, the station added an hour to its morning block and is live 5-10 a.m. Fanshawe plans to grow WBFF’s early evening presence, too. “We look to expand the 5:30 news to a full hour in the next six months,” he says.

Joerres says WBAL stands out with its robust digital strategy (94 million page views on last year, 48 million on mobile) and dedication to local events, such as Ravens football programming and a War of 1812 festival in June. WBAL was the only Baltimore station to send a reporter to Rome to cover the local archbishop’s elevation to cardinal, says Joerres. “These are things we choose to do as a station,” he says, “because they’re important to viewers.”

WMAR last year switched to a two-anchor setup for early and late news; the station is pushing a multimedia journalist (MMJ) game plan. WMAR is alone with 4:30 a.m. news. “Since that’s been on the air, we’ve seen a nice bump through our morning shows,” says Bill Hooper, vice president and general manager.

WUTB prides itself on “fresh, compelling, entertaining” programming, such as The Big Bang Theory in syndication, says Alan Sawyer, vice president. “I can sit comfortably with my wife and kids and watch,” he says. “That’s real important when you’re trying to serve the community.”

While political spending this year will likely be light, GMs say Baltimore, with its proximity to Washington and emerging tech sector, is holding up economically. “We [were] very, very well positioned to get through the recession,” says Newman, “and start growing again.”

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