Can Larry Wert at long last bring home the gold? Now may be the best opportunity in a long time for long-standing NBC-owned WMAQ-Channel 5 general manager Wert and his local news team to make a legitimate run at dethroning ABC-owned WLS-Channel 7, the longtime champion in the late local news ratings competition.
How so? In case you haven’t heard, we are deep into the quadrennial Summer Olympics sporting extravaganza, and millions of eyes in this country are glued to NBC each evening for marathon prime time coverage of the event.
That means when each evening’s prime time Olympic programming ends (at 11 p.m. or so here in Chicago), many of those same viewers remain tuned to NBC to watch late local news in most markets.
In Chicago, they are remaining tuned to Channel 5.
Wert and his cohorts at Channel 5 are getting a huge Olympics ratings boost. Over the first five days of NBC Olympic coverage the station’s late newscast with Allison Rosati and Rob Stafford averaged a 10.2 Nielsen rating (one rating point equals 35,000 Chicago area households). That compares to a 6.5 rating at 10 p.m. for No. 1-rated Channel 7, and a 3.5 rating for CBS-owned WBBM-Channel 2, which recently fell to third place in the late news race behind Channel 5.
WMAQ’s late news ratings are even more impressive when one factors in that they are 20 percent higher than the ratings the station’s late news scored during the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.
Ch. 7 takes steps to keep viewers from defecting
But Channel 7 isn’t letting its arch rival rack up huge ratings without putting up a fight.
In an unusual move, WLS is airing an additional, abbreviated version of its nightly 10 p.m. late newscast at 11 p.m., just as Olympic coverage is winding down each night on Channel 5. The added WLS newscast features anchors Ron Magers, Kathy Brock and Cheryl Burton and weatherman Jerry Taft.
Though WLS brass aren’t widely touting the additional short news headline report, it’s a clear sign they are willing to take an unusual extra step to try and keep loyal WLS viewers from permanently defecting to the competition.
It’s also worth noting that this additional late news report comes just a couple of months after John Idler was named WLS’s new general manager, replacing longtime leader Emily Barr.
Even though WLS is a tough competitor, there may be more reason than ever for the station to be concerned and to take additional steps to ward off any onslaught from Channel 5.
Ch. 5 news team earning improved ratings
The WMAQ news department in recent months has come on stronger than it has at any time in recent memory. Among other things, the station has been registering notably higher than usual viewership in the key 25-to-54-year-old audience demo.
The Channel 5 resurgence began in May, with its hard-hitting coverage of the NATO conference in Chicago. Channel 5 put veteran reporter Phil Rogers and a cameramen on the front line of the melee between protesters and police near McCormick Place and provided riveting coverage of the short, but intense confrontation.
Wert told us the news department thought long and hard about putting staffers in the middle of such a potentially dangerous situation. But they did. And it paid off. Channel 5 has been making other adjustments too. New faces have been added to the talent mix, and the story count is up.
Plus, just in time for the Olympics, WMAQ unveiled a classy new TV ad campaign for its newscasts that neatly dovetails with NBC coverage of the global sporting event. The ad campaign tagline is “Bringing You the World of Chicago.”
The Ch. 5 and 7 race worth watching
Still, if WMAQ is finally going to pull off —and maintain — a position as the late local news ratings leader in Chicago, much more will have to go right over the next several months.
The WLS 10 p.m. newscast had a nearly 2 ratings point lead over second-place WMAQ (8 for WLS vs. 6.1 for WMAQ Monday through Friday) in the June Nielsen ratings book that ended last week. Many, many new loyal late news viewers will have to materialize in the weeks ahead for WMAQ to hold on to the Olympics ratings bump it is now getting.
Channel 5 also will need to get a lot of help from NBC network prime time programming, which, for the most part, has fared poorly in recent seasons. That poor performance has given Channel 5 weak lead-in ratings numbers for its late newscast. At least one bright spot on the horizon for NBC’s fall prime time, however, is the return of “The Voice,” which was a big ratings success last season.
So will Larry Wert and his station finally get their gold in late local news and hold on to it for the long haul? Stay tuned. This time it promises to be a race well worth watching.
Contact Lewis Lazare at LewisL3@aol.com