- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Here’s a sobering thought for the local television station managers who spent big bucks raiding each other’s “talent” this year: Maybe the stars you hire to anchor the news don’t matter as much as the shows that air immediately before their newscasts.

How else do you explain the slightly schizophrenic results of the November ratings sweep that ends today?

Take WUSA-TV (Channel 9), the Washington area’s CBS affiliate.

Since the last major sweep in May, WUSA replaced Gordon Peterson and Gurvir Dhindsa as the anchors of its weekday 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts with Tracey Neale and Todd McDermott.

How did viewers respond?

About 166,000 local households tuned in to WUSA at 11 p.m. during the first 26 days of the 28-day November sweep, 14 percent more than the similar period a year ago. The station finished second in the late-news race behind NBC station WRC-TV (Channel 4), which averaged about 178,000 households, or roughly 7 percent fewer than in November 2003.

But at 6 p.m., WUSA finished a dismal fourth place. It drew about 87,000 households, almost 18 percent less than Mr. Peterson and Ms. Dhindsa did a year earlier.

Potential explanations for the disparity in WUSA’s 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. performances abound, but in the end it probably comes down to the popularity of the programs that precede the newscasts.

At 11 p.m., Ms. Neale and Mr. McDermott follow CBS’ prime-time lineup, which has made major gains this season thanks to additions such as “CSI: NY” and the surging “Without a Trace.”

In other words, viewers who want to watch local news after a popular CBS show at 10 p.m. are increasingly likely to stay tuned to WUSA than switch to WRC or one of the other stations.

But at 6 p.m., Ms. Neale and Mr. McDermott have the misfortune of following WUSA’s low-rated, late-afternoon lineup, which gets off to a weak start at 4 p.m. with the syndicated “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” and “Inside Edition.”

Then again, maybe it does matter who stations put in front of the camera.

November was the first sweep since WUSA let popular morning weathercaster Hillary Howard go. The result: The station plunged about 16 percent weekdays between 5 and 7 a.m., finishing in fourth place with about 47,000 households.

Other sweeps results:

• WRC rules almost all the time periods, and is still No. 1 in early mornings and in late news even though ratings dipped during those slots. WRC drew 155,000 households at 5 p.m. (up 18 percent) and 184,000 households at 6 p.m. (up 7 percent).

• ABC affiliate WJLA-TV (Channel 7) is now a solid second at 5 p.m. with 129,000 households (up 33 percent) and at 6 p.m. with 133,000 households (up 32 percent.) WJLA’s “The Oprah Winfrey Show” has beaten back a challenge from “Judge Judy” on WTTG-TV (Channel 5) and is once again tops in the 4 p.m. race with 163,000 households (up 52 percent.)

• WTTG’s locally produced “Fox 5 Morning News” remains the little newscast that could. It drew 91,000 households weekdays from 7 to 9 a.m., finishing second behind “Today” on WRC but ahead of “Good Morning America” on WJLA and “The Early Show” on WUSA.

• WUSA’s “USA Tonight” finished in fifth place weeknights at 7.

Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send e-mail to cbaker@washingtontimes.com.

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