The race to be number one has tightened up significantly since the use of “code readers” replaced old-fashioned diaries in recording who is watching what, according to those familiar with the first few months of their use.

While there has been no massive sea change in terms of which stations place first, second or third in Mobile, the distance between first and third has become a horse race. Although none of the stations has released actual numbers yet, some have been willing to talk a bit about what they saw from February — the first sweeps month to use the readers.

Implemented in February, the code readers have replaced the manual logbooks used for decades. Previously, Nielsen households had a logbook in which household members were expected to write down what they watched. Critics have long suggested that method wasn’t terribly accurate as it didn’t account for channel surfing, and the demographic of those keeping logbooks tended to be older.

The system being used in Mobile actually picks up codes broadcast on roughly 500 different programs in the market. It makes it possible to pick up on how long people are watching a show and when or if they change channels. Between 500 and 600 households have the readers.

While the actual ratings determination gets a bit more complex — involving not only the 500 or so readers in the Mobile market, but also comparing them with readers across the region to develop an overall look at households — station managers who are getting initial data say they’re already seeing some changes.

“From Local 15’s perspective, I can say the ratings are closer than ever,” said WPMI General Manager Bobby Totsch. “It’s a lot more competitive. I like to say this is an election year and the people are choosing.”

Totsch has been excited about the prospects of having the readers for some time. His station has traditionally lagged in the ratings, a situation he says has been primarily a function of the hand-kept diaries not being particularly accurate and often being kinder to “legacy stations” such as WKRG that have a loyal following of older viewers.

The stations have been reluctant to release exact numbers from February primarily because the readers were first being used and the numbers couldn’t be used as “currency,” as there were still adjustments to be made with the readers. Totsch said the May sweeps will be the first where the numbers will come completely from electronic monitoring. Still, he is excited by what he’s seen from February.

“Our station is highly competitive compared to where it used to be under the diary system,” he said.

Instead of seeing competitors in an almost unattainable position, Totsch says they are now looking at 5 percent or 10 percent differences versus 40 percent.

Earlier this month, WALA FOX10 sent out a press release touting its own growth, also acknowledging “a very tight ratings race.” WALA claimed gains of 28.6 percent for “Studio 10” at 9 a.m., 26.7 percent for its 4 p.m. news and 33.3 percent and 23.8 percent, respectively, for its 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. newscasts. Those changes were in the 25-54 demographic. WKRG General Manager Mark Bunting was unable to get back to us before deadline to offer his thoughts on the latest ratings, but has said in the past he did not expect to see any real changes in station rank.

Totsch says he thinks the tightening news race is good for the market as a whole, as it breeds more competition for viewers, which means more hustle to get the biggest and best stories.

“More competition is good for the audience,” he said.