When February news ratings for Charlotte stations are officially announced Thursday, WBTV (Channel 3) will report something that hasn’t happened in a quarter century – it has passed rival WSOC (Channel 9) in all key ratings periods, including the big 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts.
Not since February 1990, when WSOC wrested the lead and went on to dominate local news numbers for 25 years, has there been such a shift in the city’s bitterly competitive TV news battle.
WBTV has been closing the gap with WSOC for the past two years and overtook its rival in the November ratings sweeps in the 6 a.m. and noon newscasts.
Assistant news director Kim Saxon said Wednesday that WBTV’s accelerated digital and social media strategies have paid off in overall prominence for the news department.
A half-million-dollar news set makeover and emphasis on the branding slogan “On Your Side” for investigative and consumer stories has also been part of the station’s strategy over the past 18 months, said Dennis Milligan, Channel 3’s news director for the past 15 years.
“It’s led to steady and consistent growth,” he said.
He also cited the station’s Alert center, an innovation that WSOC has copied, which helps get news on the air quicker during broadcasts because someone is already on the set and able to deliver a quick report on a specialty topic.
WSOC has seen the departure of several key news personalities in the last year to bigger jobs in bigger cities including Natalie Pasquarella, who went to New York, and Blair Miller, who left for Boston.
WBTV, which went on the air in 1949 and began a local nightly newscast with Doug Mayes in 1952, maintained a powerful lead over competitors in local news for decades. WSOC signed on in 1957 and attracted only a fraction of the news audience until it got serious about local news in the 1980s.
Industry veterans reflecting on that period used to joke that all the television dials in the area were rusted on Channel 3.
But WSOC nibbled away at Channel 3’s lead, then began to surpass the longtime leader about the time Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989. In February 1990, WSOC took the lead in all local key newscasts and maintained domination afterward, even as WCNC (Channel 36), WCCB (Channel 18) and WJZY (Channel 46) added news departments.
Nielsen, which monitors TV usage and compiles daily ratings, has increased by a third the number of sample households in the last year to about 800. That has resulted in some volatility in the numbers depending on where the new sample members are located.
Charlotte is unusual among top-25 markets because of the stark difference in viewing patterns for major stations.
WBTV dominates west of the Catawba River, particularly in the foothill counties. WSOC is strongest east of the river and out into the Piedmont. WCNC’s stronghold is in the urban core of the 22-county market area, which stretches from the Virginia line to Clover, S.C.
Demographic numbers also vary for stations. For example, while WBTV leads among all viewers at noon, it is about tied with WSOC at noon in the key advertising demo of adults ages 25-54.
Other highlights in the February news ratings:
▪ About 7 percent of all viewers in the region watching at 10 p.m. went to one of the three 10 p.m. newscasts. Last February, that number was 10 percent.
▪ At 10 p.m., WJZY’s newscast loses 45 percent of viewers turned to the station during Fox prime time. Both WAXN (Channel 64) and WCCB see increases in viewers from prime time. If WJZY can reverse its negative momentum, it has the potential to lead in the time slot.
▪ WJZY’s 6 p.m. newscast, which was launched in June 2014, runs seventh in the time period behind local news on the three major network affiliates, “TMZ” on WCCB, “People’s Court” on Fox-owned sister station WMYT (Channel 55) and reruns of “Meet the Browns” on WAXN. “Meet the Browns,” with about 8,200 viewers, tops the Fox46’s 6 p.m. audience by more than a third.
Estimated total viewers reached by key weekday newscasts during the February sweeps with 27 of 28 days and percentage change from last February as measured by Nielsen.