A SMALL SIGN on a former lighting fixtures store might be an indication of big changes in Baltimore's television landscape.
"Future Home of Fox 45 News" reads the lettering in front of what was once the Baltimore Gas Light building. Sitting as it does at the foot of Television Hill, it cannot have escaped the notice of executives of WJZ-Channel 13 and WBAL-Channel 11 as they drive to work every morning.
At a cost of more than $6 million, early next year WBFF-Channel 45 is going to begin moving its entire operation into the building, originally constructed in the late '40s as a Dr. Pepper bottling plant.
And not long after it completes the shift sometime next spring from the aged, crowded facility only about a quarter mile away sometime next spring, it is going to put its first local news on the air.
Chosen to get the mission off the ground is news director Mark Pimentel who comes across as an intense, serious sort with a sense of humor lurking not far beneath his perpetually furrowed brow.
"This is as big a challenge as you can get," Pimentel said during a recent visit to the station where he will begin working full time later this month.
"You get an opportunity like this once in a lifetime, to take everything you've learned and build something from the ground up into what you think a news program should be. It's exciting."
The hour-long program, airing at 10 p.m. seven days a week, is the latest in a series of giant steps that have taken Channel 45 from the status of a virtual mom-and-pop operation scraping by with old movies and tired reruns to an important player on the local television scene.
The first step was affiliating with Fox, a fledgling network that is now trying to fly with big boys. That meant that Channel 45 wasn't just the home of scratchy prints of "Kojak," it was the station of "Married . . . With Children," "The Simpsons" and "In Living Color."
The second was the construction of a massive new antenna, right next to the three-sided tower that sends out the signals of the three other network affiliates in town, a move that sharpened up the literally fuzzy image much of the city had of Channel 45.
With the implementation of a local news operation, Channel 45 will definitely join the big leagues.
Pimentel has experience with the big boys. A native of Ithaca, N.Y. -- son of two Cornell professors -- he worked in stations in Ohio and Florida before spending six years as executive producer at the ABC station in Raleigh, N.C.
He then moved up the news executive ladder in the bigger markets of Boston and Atlanta. He comes to Baltimore after a year and a half as news director of the ABC affiliate in Charleston, S.C.
His station, which won an Emmy for having the best newscast among markets its size in the Southeast during his tenure, stayed on the air the longest when Hurricane Hugo hit the coastal city.
"I didn't think we did anything extraordinary," Pimentel said, revealing something about the way he runs a news operation. "I was more surprised at what the other stations did."
As Pimentel described it, all three stations' buildings are in low areas and were evacuated about the same time. The other two went off the air at that point, but Pimentel kept his station on the air using a mobile microwave unit with its camera aimed a reporter standing next to the cinder block building at the transmitter site until power was lost several hours later.
When Charleston was deprived of power for several days after the storm and thus did not see television coverage of Hugo's immense destructive power, Pimentel put together a documentary that ran a few weeks later. It got a 53 rating and 80 share.
"Obviously I have some ideas about what I think a news broadcast should be -- the thrust of the program will be local -- but I want to get to know the community before I make any final decisions," Pimentel said of his plans at Channel 45.
As for the faces that will be seen on Channel 45 next spring, Pimentel indicated some of them may be familiar. "I've talked with some people I've met over the years who might want to come to Baltimore, but maybe we can lure some people from across the street who might want to try a new approach," he said.
Ultimately, about 35 people will be employed for the station's news programs. Figuring out where they will sit and deciding on the design of the newsroom -- and whether or not it's used as the set -- is part of Pimentel's start-from-scratch job description.
"Most surveys show that viewers think they get essentially the same information, the same stories on all the news shows," he said. "We want a program that will have stories people won't see anywhere else."
Having an hour to work with, and having it at 10 p.m. -- a time when people are actually watching television and not just catching the headlines, a few scores and tomorrow's weather before turning in -- works to Pimentel's advantage in trying to put together a newscast that not only looks different, but is different from what's available elsewhere.
The 10 p.m. newscast is standard in the Midwest, where prime time is an hour earlier due to the time zone. Some of the country's best TV news operations are, not coincidentally, located there.
Hour-long versions were pioneered at the Metromedia stations that Fox bought and became the core of its new network. Channel 5 (WTTG) in Washington is such a station and gets excellent ratings with its 10 p.m. newscast.
Fox ends its prime time at 10 p.m. and has encouraged its affiliates to develop news to follow. The network has plans for a news operation of its own that will supply affiliates with national stories.
"All indications are that the audience for news at 11 o'clock is shrinking," Pimentel said. "It's losing some viewers to entertainment and some are just going to bed. We're going to offer them an alternative."