TV ratings succumb to March Madness

The recently released March ratings for Lexington network affiliates posed quite the quandary for the television stations.

First, there was no way to compare the data. Ratings are generally taken by Nielsen in February, but it opted to forgo the month this year because stations were originally to transition to digital signals in February. Congress later allowed stations to wait until as late as June to switch.

And March presents a whole host of problems for some newscasts in Lexington. CBS affiliate WKYT-27 airs NCAA basketball during much of the month, often pre-empting its newscasts and possibly leading regular viewers to sample other channels.

Plus, this ratings period just happened to have one of the most historic moments in University of Kentucky basketball history — the firing and hiring of a coach.

It was a ratings book that often saw the word anomaly dropped on the page, but here are some of the stories.

Coaching frenzy

As conventional wisdom would suggest, people in the 40-county viewing area measured by Nielsen flocked to coverage of the UK basketball coaching saga.

It was most noticeable during the times that stations interrupted their regular programming to air press conferences announcing the firing of Billy Gillispie and hiring of John Calipari.

Take for instance the afternoon conference announcing the firing of Gillispie. WKYT normally airs Guiding Light at 3 p.m., and the show typically draws one ratings point, meaning one percent of all households with TVs in the area are watching. The other component to understanding ratings is share, which is the percentage of households that are watching TV at that time and are tuned to that show. Guiding Light typically drew a 6 share.

When WKYT broke in to to provide coverage leading up to the press conference, its ratings soared to 6 points and a 16 share.

When WLEX broke into programming, it scored a 7/16, well above the 4/13 average for Ellen.

Similar increases were seen for the press conference announcing Calipari's hiring.

The Young and the Restless on CBS typically scored a 3/15. Calipari's hiring scored a 7/26.

The overall impact on newscasts was far less pronounced since the press conferences happened between newscasts and were covered live by the stations.

"Usually where you'll see (newscast) spikes is in major disasters or severe weather coverage," WLEX News Director Bruce Carter said of newscast bumps. "I've seen the (ratings) number be as high as a 15 or 16 with a severe weather event."

One area that did see a major boost was online traffic.

WKYT's Web site saw page views increase 140 percent over a normal March day on the day of Gillispie's firing and 250 percent on the day before Calipari's hiring when speculation was rampant. And video plays on WLEX's Web site were up 400 percent and 500 percent, respectively, on those days.

News: WLEX tops WKYT

The ratings period saw WLEX lead all but two newscast time slots in household ratings.

Rival WKYT had recently been snatching away victories at some of those time periods but won only the noon and 12:30 p.m. newscasts, traditionally its strongest times.

"It was a good book, and it got us back to the books we were used to having," Carter said.

He noted that the station's morning shows rebounded after slumps in the November ratings period, which had been the first since Chris Goodman joined Dia Davidson as a co-anchor.

"Generally, any time you make a change in a newscast, you're going to see some sort of little dip because you made a change," said WLEX General Manager Pat Dalbey. "And then it tends to come back up. That's conventional wisdom, and that's what we saw here."

WKYT News Director Robert Thomas said the month was not an accurate indicator for WKYT because the station pre-empted many newscasts to air basketball.

"Overall, the impact for WKYT is great because people here love basketball, and basketball does really well (in ratings). And financially, basketball is wonderful for this station," Thomas said. "But we also recognize that when your news goes on a hour and a half late, that's not a help to your news.

"It's a close race between both us and WLEX. Each of us have different victories at different points."

WTVQ hurt by switch

ABC affiliate WTVQ-36, traditionally a distant third in the news ratings, said its decision to drop its analog signal in February, as scheduled, hurt its March performance.

Other Lexington stations waited until at least April to switch, allowing people more time to purchase converter boxes or subscribe to cable or satellite services.

General Manager Chris Aldridge said Nielsen data suggests the switch caused the station to lose 13 percent of the total homes that normally watched it at least once a week.

"I don't regret our decision to transition early in February ... but at the same time, we all thought that the digital readiness of the Lexington market was higher than it apparently was."