For Triangle TV stations, the ratings stakes have likely never been higher than they are this fall.
The start of the traditional TV season is bringing new programming and switches in some local news lineups, while a volatile presidential campaign is pumping ad dollars into North Carolina, which is again a swing state.
All in a TV market that broke into the Nielsen Top 25 for the first time last year. The Raleigh-Durham market now ranks No. 24, zooming past No. 25 Charlotte. Raleigh-Durham is within 15,000 homes of Pittsburgh in the No. 23 spot.
Market size goes hand-in-hand with ratings when TV stations court advertisers, and each of the Triangle’s three main TV news operations – WRAL, WTVD and WNCN (NBC-17) – is pitching a distinct narrative.
For WRAL, it’s longtime dominance in the market. For WTVD, it’s gains among female viewers and new programming designed to appeal to them. And for WNCN, it’s a new lineup featuring a popular former anchor from WRAL.
C.A. Tuggle, a professor of broadcasting at UNC-Chapel Hill and a TV news veteran, said news stations must continue to adjust to keep pace with market expectations.
“Raleigh-Durham is approaching the Top 20 quickly,” Tuggle said. “The higher the market, the more sophisticated newscast you expect.”
The female factor
WRAL continues to be the market leader, going back for more than 30 years to the days of Charlie Gaddy and Bob DeBardelaben.
The Nielsen ratings from the most recent sweeps periods, May 2012, show WRAL leading in overall households for all age groups. The station does especially well with men.
But WTVD is more of a threat than ever before, making advances in nearly all news timeslots in a key demographic important to ad buyers – women, especially those 25-54. For instance, from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m., WTVD has a 1-point lead over WRAL. That lead increases to 2 points once the national morning shows start at 7 a.m. In this market, 1 ratings point represents 11,434 households.
“That’s an important demographic, because people in that age group spend more than people in any other age groups, and women make the majority of purchase decisions,” Tuggle said.
WTVD news director Rob Elmore said the station, an ABC affiliate, recognizes the power of women.
“They’re the ones who make the decisions about what local news to watch,” Elmore said. “They’re the ones who make the decision what show to watch in primetime. ... It’s a huge, important group, and we’re thrilled that they’ve chosen us as their No. 1 station in this market.”
The ABC network has a broader connection with women, from morning to night, Elmore said. It’s the home of Robin Roberts, Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters, as well as programs popular with women such as “The View,” “Dancing with the Stars,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Revenge.”
And this week, former CBS News anchor Katie Couric launched her own afternoon talk show on ABC. It airs in the Triangle at 3 p.m. on WTVD, providing a strong lead-in for the station’s 4 p.m. newscast.
The overall ratings
Rick Gall, news director at WRAL, agrees that advertisers like women. But he said his station is secure in its role as the overall ratings leader among all adults. In nearly all the time slots where WTVD beats WRAL with women, WRAL leads in total households. Though WRAL has just a .6 ratings lead over WTVD in total households at 6 a.m., it has a 3.2 lead at 6 p.m. and a 2.3 lead at 11 p.m.
“From our perspective, it’s critical that we’re winning households,” Gall said.
Tuggle said if you have to win just one demographic, women are who you want. But he doesn’t think a 1 point or less lead with women in some slots offsets the purchasing power of a multiple point lead with a larger group.
Still, Tuggle said WRAL should be a bit concerned about WTVD’s growing strength among women, and WTVD should be concerned about WRAL’s overall leads.
WRAL did some refreshing last September, getting a new set, updated news and weather graphics, and makeovers for some on-air staff members.
Meteorologist Greg Fishel, WRAL’s most prominent TV personality and an important weather commodity, was the recipient of a much-publicized (by WRAL) on-air makeover. The promotion, pegged to Fishel’s 30-year anniversary with the station, encouraged viewers to go online and drag virtual clothes, glasses and hairstyles onto an interactive model of the weatherman.
Many other reporters got hair and wardrobe makeovers, which is not uncommon at TV stations. WRAL general manager Steve Hammel said no one was forced to make changes.
In the content department, WRAL has invested in a beefed-up legislative team, adding Laura Leslie from WUNC public radio in early 2011, and Mark Binker from the Greensboro News & Record earlier this year.
WRAL is owned by Capitol Broadcasting Company, a privately owned Raleigh company with numerous local holdings, including WRAZ Fox-50, 101.5 FM and the Durham Bulls minor league baseball team. Those deep pockets make WRAL a tough competitor when it comes to matching technological advancements and innovations.
WRAL was the first local station in the nation to broadcast in high definition in 1996 – even before people had high-definition televisions. In 2000, the station broadcast the first all-HD newscast in the world. Just last week, WRAL became the first commercial station in the nation to demonstrate a new Mobile Emergency Alert System that will send mobile alerts without a cellphone signal or Internet access. WRAL plans to implement the technology in the next year or two.
WTVD, owned by Disney, has also made big investments here. It remodeled its street-level studio on Fayetteville Street in Raleigh in 2011, and it will open a street-level studio and newsroom on Hay Street in Fayetteville in October. Cumberland County is the second-largest county in the 23-county Raleigh-Durham market. Last week, the station expanded its Sunday 11 p.m. newscast to a full hour and plans to do the same on its late Saturday newscast starting Dec. 7.
(The News & Observer has a collaborative relationship with ABC11 that includes WTVD meteorologists giving weather updates on newsobserver.com.)
Beyond the Big 2
Lost in this battle for first place is WNCN, more commonly referred to as NBC-17. The station, owned by Media General, is perennially in last place. But news director Andrea Parquet-Taylor said it has no inferiority complex and is, in fact, confident about the future.
Much of that has to do with the station’s newest hire, Pam Saulsby, who was an anchor at WRAL for 20 years before being let go last October.
Like many viewers in the Triangle, Parquet-Taylor said she was surprised by Saulsby’s separation from WRAL.
“I never expected this to come about,” Parquet-Taylor said. “We can only say we are very, very happy that Pam is coming aboard our team. Pam brings so much to the table. She’s rooted in this community.”
Saulsby officially began at NBC-17 this week but will not appear on-air until Monday, when she will introduce a five-part series on North Carolina’s military. She will co-anchor the 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts with Penn Holderness and file reports on the station’s website.
NBC-17 also has Bill Reh, a former meteorologist for WTVD, Todd Gibson, a sports reporter formerly at WRAL, and Valonda Calloway, a former WRAL reporter.
Tuggle said the key to the station’s success is in differentiating itself from the two leaders.
“You can’t out-TVD TVD,” he said. “And you can’t out-RAL RAL. So they’re just going to have to do something different. Something bold, something fresh. Smart, bold and fresh would be the key.”
Parquet-Taylor said the station got a big bump from the 17-day Summer Olympics, and it tried to offer unique programming during that time. Holderness, the 6-foot-5-inch anchor who was born and raised in Durham, produced and starred in a nightly segment called “How Good Are They?” in which he attempted various Olympic feats, often to comedic effect.
NBC-17 also is the only local station to offer a 7 p.m. weekday newscast, and it recently finished a huge makeover of its morning news program, introducing a new set built around a sofa instead of desks. By contrast, morning news shows at WRAL and WTVD have anchors behind desks throughout the newscasts.
Ultimately, Tuggle said, ratings don’t mean much to viewers at home – the numbers are for advertisers. But the stylistic approaches the stations take are reflected in the numbers, Tuggle said.
“RAL is changing a bit,” he said, “but they’re a bit old and stodgy to some viewers. TVD is more hip and more highly produced, and yet, has a lot of turnover among its staff. So those factors ... affect – eventually, and usually sooner than later – who’s watching.”