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KTTV Unseats KTLA at 10 p.m. News

Television: With a strong lead-in from Fox programming, Channel 11 edges Channel 5's longtime ratings winner.

May 24, 1996|STEVE WEINSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One of the great dynasties in local television history was toppled this month as Fox-owned KTTV-TV Channel 11 beat perennial 10 p.m. news champ KTLA-TV Channel 5 for the first time, according to data released Thursday by Nielsen Media Research for the May ratings sweeps.

Hal Fishman, KTLA's 10 p.m. anchor for the last 21 years, had never been on the losing end of a ratings battle in that time. For most it, sort of like chasing Michael Jordan, no one even came close.

But the overwhelming appeal of the Fox prime-time lineup leading into Channel 11's newscast and the apparently growing appeal of the station's newscast--anchored by John Beard and Christine Devine--ended that impressive streak this week.

KTTV, which had managed to tie KTLA for the first time in last February's sweeps, inched by the top dog this month with a 5.3 rating to KTLA's 5.0 (with each rating point representing 49,175 households)--a margin of about 15,000 homes.

No matter that the Fox network's prime-time programming delivered an average of 585,000 homes to KTTV at 10 p.m. compared to KTLA's 315,000--the mood around Channel 11 in the wake of its first-time victory was described by station employees as nothing short of euphoric.

The May sweeps are one of four annual ratings periods used by some local stations to set advertising rates. And, equally important in some quarters, to establish bragging rights.

"Lead-in, lead-in, lead-in," said Craig Hume, KTLA's news director, explaining his station's loss.

On Wednesday, for example, the season finale of "Beverly Hills, 90210" gave KTTV a gargantuan 18.3 rating from 8 to 10 p.m. while KTLA, which is now tied to the fledgling WB network, had just a 3.2. Fox's seven-night prime-time schedule is now so strong in the Los Angeles market that it finished second overall among the four networks during the sweeps, besting both ABC and CBS.

"Their lead-in strength has grown consistently over the past two years in every book," Hume said. "Fox is a major network. We're like David battling Goliath. I think the fact that we came within three-tenths [of a point] is remarkable."

Jose Rios, KTTV's news director, doesn't think it is fair to write off the victory solely to Fox's strength in prime time. His station's 10 p.m. newscast has won the Emmy Award for best local newscast--in competition against all stations, including those owned by the major networks--for two straight years. And just three years ago, Rios said, KTTV was far behind in the 10 p.m. news race, nip and tuck with KCAL-TV Channel 9 and KCOP-TV Channel 13 for distant second, third and fourth places. This month, KCAL was third with a 2.6 rating while KCOP logged a 1.5.

"I'm certainly glad that we have Fox network programming in front of us," Rios said. "I happen to like it because it gives us greater freedom to do stories other stations can't really do. Because of the younger audience, we can do a lot of things on the streets with young people and the problems they face--stories that go virtually ignored everywhere else. KTLA has an older audience, but they also have a lot of viewers who are habitual viewers of their newscast for 10 or 20 years. That's a big obstacle to overcome, and it's a real tribute to the plain hard work and dedication of the staff here. Beating them just doesn't happen by showing up.

"KTLA has been No. 1 for a long time, and I think competition is a very healthy thing for them," Rios added. "Hopefully we'll make them better and that is good for the viewers and for the city."

KTLA's Hume said that his station will be looking for ways to improve its newscast in an effort to recapture the top spot.

"But I still think we put on a solid and well-respected newscast," Hume said. "We have people who make an appointment to watch our news at 10 every night. We are going to find ways to build our newscast and make it even better than it is, but I certainly don't think it needs major surgery."

The other end of KTLA's news operation--its 7-9 morning show--fared better in the sweeps, handily knocking off all three network morning shows and doubling the audience of KTTV's rival broadcast headed by Steve Edwards.

Among the network-owned stations, the news race remained much the same as for the last two years. KNBC-TV Channel 4 beat KABC-TV Channel 7 in the early morning and at 11 p.m., while KABC won in all afternoon time periods.

KCBS-TV Channel 2, the traditional also-ran in this ratings contest, watched as its revamped afternoon news lineup sputtered to all-time low numbers. At 5 p.m., KCBS managed just a 2 rating compared with KABC's 7.2 and KNBC's 6.2. And the "CBS Evening News With Dan Rather," which was moved to 5:30 p.m. on April 8, grabbed an embarrassing 2.5 rating here, more than a 33% decline from a year ago. By comparison, ABC's network news with Peter Jennings, which airs an hour later, attracted three times the audience.

The good news for Channel 2, however, is that while still running third, its 11 p.m. newscast actually grew 10% over its totals of a year ago. Both Channel 4 and Channel 7 dropped a bit. Channel 2 also has the highest-rated midday news program--airing at noon--leading by one-tenth of a point over KNBC's 11 a.m. newscast and KABC's 11:30 a.m. newscast. KCAL's noon news, meanwhile trails KCBS by half a point while KTLA's version lags badly.

Oprah Winfrey, whose series at 3 p.m. gives KABC's afternoon news block a seemingly insurmountable advantage, still reigns as the daytime talk queen, holding her 7.2 rating of a year ago, while many of her rivals fell from their peaks last year. "The Ricki Lake Show," for example, airing at 5 p.m. on KCOP, lost nearly 30% of its audience here from last May, though it still managed to finish as the second most-watched daytime talker.

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