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Ratings race gets tight for TV local stations

December 6, 2003

Was letting go of "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!" a brilliantly bold stroke or the dumbest thing KCTV, Channel 5, could have done?

Station managers in Kansas City are debating that and other vital programming questions in the wake of preliminary Nielsen data that shows the four area TV news outlets more tightly bunched in the ratings than they've ever been.

Every station found something to cheer about from Nielsen's 20-day report, which gives a broad outline of how local television fared in the November ratings "sweep" (Oct. 30-Nov. 26). Though there were only minor changes in the pecking order -- and market leader KMBC, Channel 9, once again bested all comers at all hours -- the wide gaps that used to separate the four are shrinking.

Nowhere was that more evident than in afternoons, where KSHB, Channel 41, has suddenly become competitive thanks to "Wheel" and "Jeopardy!" KCTV relinquished the rights to the popular game shows to KSHB on Sept. 1. Those shows had been leading viewers into KCTV newscasts at 5 and 6 p.m. The result? Compared with November 2002, ratings for KCTV at 5 p.m. are down 28 percent, and at 6 p.m. they're down 26 percent.

Meanwhile, "Wheel" and "Jeopardy!" helped double the audience watching KSHB's historically low-rated "NBC Action News." At 6, where Channel 41 is accustomed to finishing a distant fourth or even fifth place, the station is now practically breathing down the necks of both WDAF, Channel 4, and KCTV.

In fact, for the first time since becoming a full-service news station nine years ago, KSHB is a contender in all three of the key time periods for local news -- 5, 6 and 10 p.m. Channel 41 general manager Jim Swinehart couldn't be happier.

"I'm really proud of what Debbie and her staff did," said Swinehart, referring to second-year news director Debbie Bush. "Nobody thought `Wheel' and `Jeopardy!' would be instant wins for us, but we knew we could bring some sampling (of news) to our station."

And yet, KCTV general manager Kirk Black said he, too, is "thrilled" with his new, lower ratings. The reason? He's attracting just as many younger viewers as before, thanks to "Access Hollywood" and "Jeopardy!" replacement "Inside Edition." And he's doing it at a fraction of what the game shows were costing him.

"We knew we would lose viewers over 50 and we did," Black said. "More people under 50 are watching us. The return on our investment has improved." (Black is basing his youthful claims on demographic data from a different Nielsen "sweep" in October. Demographics for November won't be out for a couple of weeks, but they're expected to follow October's trends.)

An even more contentious bit of number-crunching is going on at 10 p.m. KCTV claimed double-digit growth for its late news, but that brought an angry reply from KMBC's sales staff. Channel 9 circulated a flier showing that Channel 5 had dropped three of the station's worst-performing nights from the Nielsens.

Using an accepted practice called "retitling," KCTV renamed three Friday-night newscasts "Football Friday Night" so they wouldn't count against its "KCTV5 News at 10" rating. If the omitted newscasts had been counted, Channel 5's ratings would not have improved from 2002.

Black dismissed KMBC's flier with a lovely barnyard epithet. He said almost as many nights were left out of the November 2002 book, so any comparisons to last year are fair.

Other stations were bemused by Channel 5's retitling. But they're also making sure that people who buy time on local TV know about KCTV's freaky Fridays.

"We're aware it's happening," said Fox 4 general manager Cheryl Kerns McDonald. "What it comes down to is, will the buyer care?"

No matter how you slice it, though, KMBC was the only station that lost viewers at 10 p.m. WDAF made up for its horrible November 2002 book despite megahyped Fox shows like "Skin" and "Joe Millionaire" going down in flames. But "Fox 4 News" slipped to fourth at 10, behind KSHB.

NBC's prime-time viewership was up, and KSHB held onto viewers who used to switch away after "Law & Order" or "ER." The station's 10 p.m. "retention rate" was 98 percent in November -- the highest since Channel 41 became an NBC affiliate.