For local TV newscasts, the ratings battle for viewers is tighter than ever.
For the Triangle’s TV news operations, some of the biggest stories in the past couple of years have been behind the camera.
Two TV stations switched network affiliations. One got a new owner. A trusted voice in local news passed away, high-profile departures were announced and a carrier dispute led some viewers to change their news habits for months. And then there was the protracted, nasty dispute over a traditional feel-good event – the Raleigh Christmas parade.
And through it all, not as many viewers are actually tuning in, and the battle for those viewers is tighter than ever before.
A recent Pew Research report shows a 9 percentage point drop in Americans watching local TV news just in the past year. That could explain some of the losses across the board for local stations. From 2016 to 2017, WTVD was essentially flat at noon, but showed losses at 4 p.m., 5 p.m., 5:30 p.m., 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. WRAL showed losses in all morning slots, plus losses at noon, 5 p.m., 5:30 p.m., 6 p.m. and 11 p.m.
WRAL, a station operated by the local family-owned Capitol Broadcasting Company,continues to lead in overall viewers when considering all news timeslots. But the station’s lead is shrinking, and Nielsen data studied showing averages for February-May-November (all sweeps months) for 2016 and 2017 indicate the slips are largest in the morning news broadcasts.
“Essentially, what WRAL lost, WTVD picked up,” said Charlie Tuggle, the Stembler distinguished professor of broadcast journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Steve Hammel, vice president and general manager for WRAL, acknowledges that the race is closer.
“We remain No. 1,” he said. “But it’s tighter than it has been in years.”
Tuggle said advertisers have traditionally cared most about 6 and 11 p.m., but that mornings are becoming increasingly crucial. “Mornings have supplanted or at least come up even in terms of importance,” Tuggle said. “Particularly in key demos.”
The key demographics he refers to are viewers ages 25-54 and more specifically, women ages 25-54 who make buying decisions.
WTVD leads WRAL in the women 25-54 demographic in all morning timeslots and at noon and 4 p.m. WRAL leads in the evenings.
Hammel said WRAL has no “drastic” plans to change anything about its morning show. “We have the people and the heritage of a station that people rely on,” he said. “They rely on us in really difficult times, whether it’s weather or whether it’s a big news story, they rely on us.”
He points to the recent snowstorm in the Triangle and the one-day ratings that showed WRAL leading in viewers all day, from 4 a.m. through 11 p.m. newscasts.
Typically, stations hate looking at one-day ratings – unless those ratings are to their advantage, of course. But Tuggle says ratings from an event like this do tell us something.
“Daily ratings are volatile,” he said. “But it says something that people tune to the tried-and-true WRAL during events like that. It is just a slice of life, but it’s an important measure.”
Caroline Welch, president and general manager at Disney-owned WTVD, doesn’t believe the Pew study about newscasts shedding viewers is very relevant here.
“It was a national study, and it really varies region to region,” she said. “There have been less viewers just in general, but we have not lost in that way in this market.”
In any case, the Triangle’s third nightly local newscast, WNCN or CBS North Carolina, showed the fewest instances of losses per timeslot of the three stations. The station was flat or slightly up in all timeslots except late afternoon, when its numbers slipped from 2016.
The ownership and management of WNCN changed in January 2017, when Nexstar Media Group purchased Media General. That was almost one year after the station switched network affiliates with WRAL to become the area’s CBS station. With the new owners came a new general manager, Byron Grandy, and a new news director, Ed Trauschke. That’s a lot of change in a short period of time, but WNCN’s numbers, overall, are better.
“I think that’s a direct result of the work that Ed and his team have been doing this year,” said Grandy. “The goal has been to firm up the product and commit to the journalism that we’re doing. I think it’s having an impact.
“Look, we’re all fighting for news viewers, and we’re all fighting for fewer of them than we ever did before because of all the ways people can get their news now.”
Still ‘a two-horse race’
Even with WNCN’s gains, Tuggle says the local battle for viewers is essentially “a two-horse race.” And that’s too bad, he said.
WNCN’s historic struggle goes back to the late ’80s when it first went on air as WYED, a UHF station. It was purchased and renamed WNCN in 1994 and took the NBC affiliation from WRDC-28 the next year.
Tuggle also points to an unevenness of talent at the station.
“You can’t do anything about history, but unevenness of the talent you can do something about,” he said.
Tuggle singled out WNCN lead anchor Sean Maroney as one of the best at the station. Maroney announced last week that he’s leaving the news business for nonprofit work.
“Their emphasis on weather is good,” Tuggle said. “Their emphasis on in-depth reporting is good. And they win some awards for the quality of their stuff. They just can’t break through to get people to see their stuff. If they have excellent product that nobody watches, what do you gain from that?”
WNCN has experienced a lot of turnover since being purchased by Nexstar, something Grandy says is pretty common when there’s a change in ownership and leadership. But Grandy says the station is now focused on hiring the “best and the brightest.” It recently hired two new meteorologists – one to replace a departing staffer, but the other just to bring the weather crew to a total of five.
Hammel at WRAL doesn’t think the 2016 affiliate change from CBS to NBC affected his station’s ratings very much.
“This past November, we were the No. 2 ranked NBC affiliate in the top 25 markets, sign on to sign off,” he said. “When we left CBS, we were a super strong CBS affiliate. Now that we’re an NBC affiliate, we’re a super strong NBC affiliate.”
Likewise, WNCN’s Grandy said his station is very pleased with CBS.
“CBS is the No. 1 network,” he said. “It’s got some of the best sports on television, including March Madness ... It’s a big, huge positive for us.”
As for losing out on March Madness, Hammel points out that WRAL still has Raycom and a lot of ACC games, plus there’s Sunday’s Super Bowl and a little thing called the Winter Olympics, which start Feb. 8 on NBC.
“The cherry on top of the sundae – or actually the entire sundae – is the Olympics,” Hammel said. “This year in February we have the Super Bowl and the Olympics, which is a massive thing for viewers.”
‘We do what we do’
At ABC 11, Welch said there isn’t a huge focus on ratings.
“The conversations we have are always about audience first,” she said. “It’s nice to win, but it’s not about that. It’s about delivering what the audience wants and what they need, and putting them first. And that’s our mission every day. It’s great to know that you are reaching a large number of viewers, but we come in every day as if we are serving every individual person and the entire community. And we do what we do. The team works really hard.”
Her team’s hard work was never more evident than when longtime anchor Larry Stogner died in October 2016 after a short battle with ALS. Stogner, 69, was a local icon and the face of WTVD for almost 35 years. His death was a blow to his colleagues.
“I have never been so proud of them,” said Welch. “The love and compassion that they showed during that time was just incredible. It was a very difficult thing for everyone to go through emotionally, but I feel like the strength of the newsroom going through that was probably as great as I’ve ever seen it, because all anybody cared about was what we needed to do to continue to deliver news with the same standards, and at the same time to do everything we could for Larry while he was with us.”
For a while in late 2017, it seemed like everyone was leaving WRAL – or announcing intentions to leave – at the same time.
In a four-week period starting in September, anchors Lynda Loveland, David Crabtree and Bill Leslie all announced they would leave the station.
▪ Loveland left in December for a Farm Bureau job with hours that would allow her to spend more time with her children. Loveland had been with WRAL since 1998.
▪ Crabtree and Leslie announced planned retirements. Crabtree, WRAL’s lead anchor since 1994, is slated to leave in November of this year. Leslie, the morning and noon anchor, has been with WRAL since 1984. Leslie is leaving in June.
▪ A few weeks after Leslie’s announcement, longtime reporter Julia Sims announced she was leaving for a job with the City of Raleigh, and meteorologist Nate Johnson announced he would take a job as Director of Weather Operations with NBCUniversal.
▪ In January, not quite a year into her stint as weekend morning anchor, Gina Benitez announced that she will leave the station in March.
It’s all a coincidence, said Hammel.
“Some people think there is no such thing as coincidence,” Hammel said. “But in this particular case I would get on the witness stand, put my hand on the Bible and say, ‘This just happened.’”
Hammel said all vacated positions will be filled.
Loveland has already been replaced with Kathryn Brown and Jeff Hogan joined the station this week to eventually take over Leslie’s anchor duties. WRAL has also hired Brad Johansen, an anchor for WKRC in Cincinnati, who will join the anchor lineup in the spring.
The great parade fight
One of WTVD’s big “gets” in 2017 was sponsorship of the Raleigh Christmas Parade, a sponsorship that had belonged to WRAL for 44 years.
The Greater Raleigh Merchants Association picked WTVD over WRAL and a battle erupted between the association and WRAL after WRAL vowed to broadcast the parade even without sponsorship.
Over the weeks preceding the parade, there were harsh words and accusations, letters from lawyers – even Santa lost his job. WRAL didn’t even get to have a float in the parade.
GRMA contended that WRAL’s insistence on broadcasting the parade without sponsorship – something within its legal rights – put the future of the parade, which relies on sponsorship dollars, in danger. WRAL’s president and chief operating officer Jimmy Goodmon essentially guaranteed at the time that Raleigh’s Christmas parade would not go away.
Throughout the hullabaloo between GRMA and WRAL, WTVD kept pretty quiet. “I don’t want to get into a tit for tat,” Welch said at the time. “It’s a parade.”
The station promoted the parade heavily and brought in ABC News anchor Tom Llamas to ride on its float.
Both stations broadcast the parade from different vantage points along the route, and both are pleased with the outcome.
“We produced probably one of the best broadcasts we ever had with less information than we ever had. And over something that should be a joyous thing for the community, there shouldn’t have been so much angst involved,” said Hammel. “It should be a joyous downtown Christmas parade, and it really didn’t have to degenerate into something other than that.”
Welch said, “It was an awesome community event, and we loved it.”
Both Welch and Hammel declined to comment on whether their stations will make a pitch for sponsorship this year, but Hammel did say WRAL intends to air it. “We certainly know we’ll be broadcasting it. How all of that works itself out, I certainly hope it works itself out in a positive way for the entire community.”
The WRAL - U-verse fight
Another blip for WRAL in 2017 – and for WRAZ, Capitol Broadcasting’s local Fox affiliate – was its protracted carriage dispute with AT&T U-verse. Such contract negotiations over retransmission fees are commonplace, and so are outages. But this one was exceptional: it lasted for more than three months.
While each side traded blame, U-verse customers were left without NBC and Fox shows, including college and NFL football games.
Hammel said he doesn’t think the station suffered any long-term effects from the outage.
“AT&T U-Verse customers make up a small percentage of people, but they were very vocal. They were exceedingly vocal,” Hammel said. “And they never should have been put in the middle. But at the end of the day, we believe that we came up with a fair conclusion.”
Reaching viewers in other ways
Welch points out that increasingly, television isn’t the only way stations must reach viewers.
WTVD recently partnered with the social media site NextDoor to deliver local news updates on their website and in email digests. “It’s another way to serve the community where they are,” Welch said. “We need to be available on all platforms.”
Hammel says WRAL embraces all digital platforms, and the station has found a huge audience on Facebook.
“While television remains our bread and butter,” Hammel said, “we have nearly a half million people on Facebook where we reach out to them and they reach back to us.”
Grandy at WNCN says his station follows a similar philosophy.
“I would argue that just as we talk to them a little less on television, we’re talking to them a lot more on digital,” he said. “We’re talking to them through live streaming, through social media, through push alerts. So we’re talking to these folks just in different ways. But our business still means we need to get them to also watch television.”
A look at ratings
Nielsen ratings for total households, February/May/November sweeps periods averaged. One ratings point equals 11,331 households.
At 6 a.m.
WRAL - 2016: 7.1 / 2017: 5.7
WTVD - 2016: 5.3 / 2017: 6.2
WNCN - 2016: 0.8 / 2017: 1.0
At 6 p.m.
WRAL - 2016: 9.8 / 2017: 8.5
WTVD - 2016: 7.4 / 2017: 7.0
WNCN - 2016: 2.2 / 2017: 2.1
At 11 p.m.
WRAL - 2016: 6.7 / 2017: 5.5
WTVD - 2016: 5.1 / 2017: 4.5
WNCN - 2016: 2.0 / 2017: 2.2
Copyright 2018 The Nielsen Company