Low voter turnout delivers high viewer tune-out

February 4, 2010

On the coattails of a giant lead-in for the season premiere of ABC's "Lost," WLS-Channel 7 won the ratings Tuesday night for its coverage of the Illinois primary. But the big surprise was the close second-place finish for WBBM-Channel 2, which opted out of extended coverage and stuck with its regular news format at 10 p.m. What seemed like a shameful abrogation of Channel 2's duty appears in hindsight to have been a calculated business decision that paid off.

From 10 to 10:30 p.m., when all five major players competed head-to-head, Channel 7 was the front-runner with a 9.5 rating, followed by Channel 2 with an 8.2, WMAQ-Channel 5 with a 5.3, WGN-Channel 9 with a 4.9, and WFLD-Channel 32 with a 3.4. (One Nielsen ratings point represents about 35,000 households.)

Channel 2 no doubt was helped by the strength of CBS' "The Good Wife," but the relatively low news numbers across the board reflected widespread apathy over an election in which three out of four eligible voters stayed home. Channel 5 preempted NBC's lame-duck "Jay Leno Show" slot to begin continuous coverage at 9 p.m. --  matching the start times of Channel 9 (which aired its first two hours of coverage anchored by WGN's Mark Suppelsa and Micah Materre on CLTV) and Channel 32. Election night notes:

  • Out with the old: Lots of familiar faces from past election nights were missing from the tube. No Dick Kay. No Walter Jacobson. No Joel Weisman. No Andy Shaw. No Jack Conaty. No Bob Sirott. No Rich Samuels. Viewers lost out on the insights and institutional memories they used to bring to the table. Instead, we got a lot of self-serving politicians and moonlighting columnists.
  • In with the new: Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady used Skype to transmit his words and image to at least two Chicago stations, suggesting a future of more intimate election-night exchanges between candidates and viewers. Even more promising was the live chat here on blogs.vocalo.org that brought together scores of journalists, bloggers, political consultants and pols in an exhilarating four-hour free-for-all. The active participation of Gov. Pat Quinn -- hours before he engaged any other media -- was the night's biggest coup by far.
  • Strange bedfellows: Considering that James Warren quit the Chicago Tribune in 2008 and now competes against his old newspaper as a columnist for the Chicago News Cooperative and publisher of the Reader, it was odd to see him on WGN/CLTV all night as an in-studio analyst. (Nice to know Tribune Co. doesn't hold a grudge.) Odder still that the Tribune's star columnist, John Kass, turned up across town as a pundit for the competition on Fox-owned Channel 32.
  • Never mind: Each station had its share of gaffes -- both technical and editorial. Channel 5's savvy political editor, Carol Marin, caught herself midway through a bulletin announcing a recount effort by Adlai Stevenson III, co-chair of Dan Hynes' gubernatorial campaign, before realizing she was reading a reference to the razor-thin contest between Stevenson and Jim Thompson in 1982.
  • Solo performance: With co-anchors Jeff Goldblatt and Anna Davlantes out in the field covering Todd Stroger and Pat Quinn headquarters, respectively, Robin Robinson commanded Channel 32's anchor desk all by herself. Robinson not only outshined the competition on Channel 2 and Channel 5, but she outlasted everyone else in the market: As best I can recall, the Fox station was the last to sign off its coverage -- at 12:50 a.m. Wednesday.
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