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May sweeps hint at how viewers are reacting to local news changes

Western New York television viewers generally don’t like change. And there has been plenty of it at the three broadcast stations in the last year.

• Channel 4 and Channel 7 changed their 5:30 p.m. anchors.

• Channel 4 changed its 10 p.m. anchor, while Channel 2 changed the station that airs its 10 p.m. news.

• Channel 7 revised its weak morning program – again – hired several promising staffers, and has gone to a much faster news presentation style.

• Channel 4 has dropped a traditional 6 p.m. sportscast, hired several young reporters and anchors, and also has a faster pace.

Because of all the changes, the May sweeps that concluded Wednesday have much more significance than they have had in recent years. They measure what changes the viewers are quickly buying, though it will take several more months to fully comprehend the impact.

Generally, Channel 2 staffers can shout “We’re No. 1” even louder than they have had in the past as they’ve won every time period they compete in except 11 p.m. in household ratings.

Channel 4 staffers have to wonder if more changes will be on the way now that the station has fallen further behind Channel 2 and is experiencing viewership losses everywhere it competes directly with Channel 2, except at 5 p.m. The staffers also have to hope to get better news when the demographics arrive. However, Channel 2 has been the regular demographic winner lately, and Nielsen is changing the way it measures demos in October.

Channel 7, which dominated local news for decades, has to be wondering why all the positive developments since E.W. Scripps Co. took over the third-rated station in June 2014 have only translated to a small weekday ratings increase at 5 p.m. and losses everywhere else on weekdays. Staffers may be wondering how long Scripps will remain patient as ratings diminish.

Now let’s look at specific time periods and specific issues.

6 a.m.: Channel 2’s “Daybreak,” co-anchored by John Beard and Melissa Holmes, has expanded its lead over second-place Channel 4’s “Wake Up!” with Teresa Weakley and Jordan Williams. Channel 4 is moving Brittni Smallwood to the morning program, which is a minor fix. Western New Yorkers appear to enjoy Channel 2’s fun approach to the morning more than Channel 4’s more traditional approach. Channel 4 seems to be responding to Channel 2’s success by running promos suggesting that meteorologist Mike Cejka is a fun guy. Those promos are pretty laughable.

Meanwhile, Channel 7’s weathercentric program led by former Channel 2 meteorologist Andy Parker is going nowhere. All three stations lost morning viewers from a year ago, with Channel 7 taking the biggest dive of 15 percent. It gets about 30 percent of Channel 2’s audience. It makes you wonder how long Scripps will stay the course before deciding to go back to a traditional morning program.

The best hope for Channel 4 and Channel 7 is if Beard were to retire in a year or so and give viewers a reason to sample Channel 2’s competitors. Even then, Channel 2 has a reliable replacement ready in Pete Gallivan.

5:30 p.m.: Channel 2 continues to dominate a time period that has seen new anchors at its rival stations. Channel 4’s move of Nalina Shapiro to anchor here has had little impact. Channel 4 remains second in the time period with a small 5 percent drop. Channel 7’s rating under new 5:30 p.m. anchor Jeff Russo slipped 17 percent from a year ago. Russo can hardly be faulted because the 5:30 p.m. newscast still gets a higher rating than its low-rated 5 p.m. lead-in.

6 p.m.: It is hard to blame Channel 4’s decision to drop the traditional sportscast in this newscast as the only reason that it experienced a 15 percent decline from a year ago and now loses a time period it won a year ago to Channel 2. The turnaround could be the result of multiple factors. It has been a trend. Channel 2 also won at 6 p.m. in February by a similar margin. But dropping the sportscast certainly isn’t helping Channel 4 as it appeared to be doing in the early days of the move. Channel 7 is beyond help despite its improved newscast. It lost 30 percent of its audience from a year ago and gets about 40 percent of Channel 2’s audience. It may be time for a new Channel 7 promo campaign, something along the lines of “try us again, you’ll like us again.”

10 p.m.: As predicted here a year ago, the move of Channel 2’s 10 p.m. newscast from WNYO-TV to Fox affiliate WUTV has been a game-changer. Channel 2 is now slightly ahead of Channel 4’s 10 p.m. newscast on WNLO-TV. Shapiro anchors Channel 4’s newscast, but it is too early to blame her for a decline that has been coming on gradually. However, it is a big decline. Channel 4 has lost 37 percent of its 10 p.m. audience from a year ago.

Channel 2 has one big 10 p.m. advantage – the lead-in from Fox’s prime-time lineup is much better than the lead-in that Channel 4 gets from the little-watched CW programming here. But this always has been the case. When Channel 4 decided to extend the 10 p.m. newscast to an hour, I said it was a mistake. And I think it has backfired with viewers who realize that there isn’t enough local news to fill an hour and it is just a money grab to sell commercials.

11 p.m.: More good news for Channel 2. It still is in second place to Channel 4, but WIVB’s winning household margin has been significantly cut and now is less than a point. Channel 2, the only station to gain viewers at 11 p.m. from a year ago, is helped by NBC’s stronger prime time lead-ins here, an area where Channel 4 has usually benefited from CBS programming. But the overriding factor is that Channel 2 has successfully done what Channel 7 and Channel 4 did for decades in the lengthy periods they were No. 1: It is best in winning awards, in promotion and in giving viewers news that they want.

And if history in this market is a guide, Channel 2 will stay the leader for years unless it does something to turn viewers away.