Channels 45 and 54 have grown quickly. Can they keep it up?


November 12, 1990|By Ellen L. James

Bruce Lumpkin clutches a cherished document: a 12-page plan he's convinced will one day hoist Channel 45 to the top of the ratings charts.

The $5 million master plan -- what Channel 45's general manager speaks of as a "bible" -- calls for a 35-member news force to deliver Baltimore's first 10 o'clock news show. It calls for a fleet of news cars, pricey "live trucks" for reporting from the field, expensive microwave dishes to capture remote feeds, and renovation of a 43,000-square-foot building at the bottom of Baltimore's Television Hill to serve as the station's new headquarters.

It's big-time stuff for a UHF station that for two decades struggled against anonymity, before being buoyed by its 1986 association with the Fox Network, purveyors of "The Simpsons," "Married . . . with Children," "In Living Color," "America's Most Wanted," and other glitzy, controversial prime-time programming.

The economy may be in a downturn that is causing other local media organizations to retrench and to scratch for advertising dollars. But WBFF and Baltimore's other major independent UHF station, WNUV Channel 54, are in the mood for expansion. Both are taking risks, roughing their way through a difficult period in hopes of building market share.

"These are exciting television times," insists the ebullient Joseph Koff, general manager at 1 1/2 -year-old WNUV, which is grabbing viewers by running movie marathons and reruns of such popular shows as "Alf," "Perfect Strangers" and "Hunter." In the early 1990s, Baltimore's two independents are giving the three local network affiliates, WBAL, WJZ and WMAR, a run for their money, Mr. Koff argues.

The Big Three affiliates still dominate 66 percent of the market in terms of viewers, based on Nielsen ratings for October.

But the two large independents -- once representing a small fraction of viewership -- have climbed to a combined market share of about 11 percent. The remaining shares are taken up by cable offerings, Washington-based stations, public television, and a local Home Shopping Network station.

What's more, the independents are reaching for the Big Three's prime-time audience. The latest Nielsen ratings, for instance, show that "The Simpsons" is drawing a respectable number of viewers to WBFF even though it is programmed against "The Cosby Show," a highly popular comedy on local NBC-affiliate WMAR. In October, Nielsen estimates that 11 percent of Baltimore-area households with televisions were tuned to "The Simpsons" on WBFF, compared to 32 percent for "Cosby."

At WBFF's studios, cardboard bins filled with some 700 videotapes tell part of the story of the expectations raised for Fox-45. The tapes, which have arrived since August, are electronic resumes from those aspiring to become news reporters or anchors for the station. Mr. Lumpkin says that among them are a few well-known personalities now working for the local Big Three.

With their lower overhead, lower advertising rates and aggressive sales techniques, Baltimore's independents are making a serious pitch for the traditional advertising dollars once dealt almost solely to network affiliates WBAL, WJZ and WMAR. These days, with budgets tight, advertisers are more interested in an economic TV buy that delivers viewers on a popular show than the prestige of having their commercial on a major network, Mr. Koff says.

"Would you rather be in the middle of a PGA golf event, which is high status in the affiliate's mind, or in the middle of a movie, with a guaranteed audience every week that likes to buy retail?" asks Mr. Koff.

To be sure, Baltimore's three major network affiliates are surrendering no ground to the independents. Neither do they dismiss the independents as also-rans.

Any advertising medium is a potential threat, says Arnold Kleiner, general manager at WMAR. "Personally, I look at chalk on sidewalks and matchbook covers as a challenge to me. I think everything that's out there is vying for the same piece of pie," he says.

While predicting that WBFF's news operation will be a commercial success, Mr. Kleiner and WJZ general manager Marcellus Alexander believe it will draw more viewers to the 10 p.m. time slot. At WBAL-TV, station manager Joseph Heston sees such programming alternatives as catering to relatively narrow "niche" markets.

"There is erosion. But in delivering a huge audience, you're still talking about a network affiliate," Mr. Heston says.

For its part, WBFF says it offers advertisers the best of both worlds: the relative economy of an independent's ad pricing and the tie-in with the trendy Fox network, which caters to young people with pop culture tastes and appetites for fast food, soft drinks, sporty cars and other products targeted to youth.

WBFF says news will give the station the credibility to attract those blue-chip advertisers -- including image-conscious banks, brokerage houses, and oil companies -- who will be associated only with a station with a full-blown news operation.

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