Ch. 7 still rules as all 10 p.m. news ratings slip

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Whoever said we humans are creatures of habit was right. For years, however, that truism has been a source of more than a little frustration to more than a few general managers and news directors at Chicago television stations.

Over time they have done just about everything thinkable short of handing each and every viewer in the city and suburbs a cool million dollars in cash to get them to change their late news viewing habits.

But guess what?  Nothing they’ve done so far has been able to shake ABC-owned WLS-Channel 7 from its first-place spot in the all-important late news ratings race.

And as we start out the election and Olympic year of 2012 — a big year to be sure — with one day to go in the January Nielsen ratings book, Channel 7’s 10 p.m. newscast is where it has been for almost as long as anyone can remember — solidly in first place Monday through Friday.

Ch. 7’s 10 p.m. news teamAll local newscast slip in ratings 

Though it remains atop the heap by a comfortable margin, Channel 7 has lost a bit of its lead over competitors over the course of the past year— dropping a full rating point to an 8.7 from a 9.7.

Actually, to be fair, there was ratings erosion across the boards in local late news — possibly an early warning signal that, increasingly, younger generations of TV watchers are beginning to have second thoughts about the need for a 10 p.m. news product. 

But back to the January ratings book.  Based on the January results, NBC-owned WMAQ-Channel 5 faces some tough challenges at the moment.  And there’s no hope of a London Olympics ratings bailout for the station’s late news at least until the summer.

Thanks in part to some abysmal prime time-lead numbers (and they were really bad), Channel 5’s late news with Allison Rosati and Rob Stafford  slumped to third place in January behind CBS-owned WBBM-Channel 2, which was essentially flat year over year at 10 p.m.

With Rob Johnson and Kate Sullivan fronting WBBM’s late news, both Channels 2 and 5 are duking it out  for second place, yet both stations appear incapable of making a serious run at Channel 7, with its comfortable three ratings point lead at 10 p.m.

There’s no question NBC’s weak prime time lineup has been a huge drawback to Channel 5 and its efforts to make headway at 10 p.m.  And it could get worse in the immediate future, if the network’s latest major prime time show, a theater-related series called “Smash” (debuting Monday), crashes quickly in the 9 p.m. late news lead-in spot.

Changes and rumors at last place Ch. 32

Meanwhile, Fox-owned WFLD-Channel 32’s long-beleaguered 9 p.m. newscast is showing few signs of life.  The hour-long newscast with anchors Bob Sirott and Robin Robinson remains mired in last place in the late news competition  — two ratings points behind Tribune Co.-owned WGN-Channel 9, which has suffered a huge ratings  falloff of its own in recent months at 9 p.m.

According the January ratings book, WGN’s 9 p.m. news fell nearly 30 percent year over year to a rating in the mid-fours from a rating of over 6 in early 2011. But despite the precipitous drop, WGN still outdraws last-place WFLD’s late news by a margin of two ratings points.

Perhaps an indication that the vast amount of change in the WFLD newscast over the past couple of years hasn’t worked, the station has just replaced news director Carol Fowler with a different news leader Phyllis Schwartz, who is no stranger to the local market. 

Prior to moving to the West Coast several years ago, Schwartz did stints as news director at both Channel 7 and Channel 5 here in Chicago. 

Since Schwartz’s arrival at WFLD, rumors also have surfaced that Larry Wert, now the general manager at WMAQ, might make the move to WFLD to join Schwartz in her further attempts to turn around the station’s newscast fortunes.  Wert and Schwartz go way back. He hired Schwartz at Channel 5.  But so far, the rumors of their reunion are just that, rumors.

Ch. 7’s “Windy City Live” starting to make a mark

WLS-Channel 7 not only is tops in late news. The station and its general manager Emily Barr are doing a pretty good job of filling the giant hole left by the shutdown of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Channel 7 made the bold decision to fill the 9 a.m. time slot with “Windy City Live,” a live, locally-produced show fronted by Ryan Chiaverini and Val Warner.

And the built-from-scratch venture is beginning to work.

“WCL” is certainly beating the competition in the ratings, besting ts nearest competitor — “Live With Kelly” on Channel 9 — by a full ratings point in January.  “WCL” may never match the drawing power of diva Winfrey’s talk fest, but for a new local show with untested co-hosts, it is making a mark.

“WCL” producers continue to tinker a bit with the show’s content to find the best mix of material to deliver the highest ratings. Still audiences obviously are getting into the habit — there we go again — of tuning in.  

Contact Lewis Lazare at LewisL3@aol.com.

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