If someone gave you $250, 000 not to work for a year what would You Do? In Sally Thorner, packaged makes perfect

October 28, 1992|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer Staff writer Mary Corey contributed to this article.

On one hand, she's the friend you can turn to, as the ads say. On the other, she's the consultant's perfectly packaged product.

Which is the real Sally Thorner?

Probably both, observers say. And that mix of down-home warmth and uptown packaging may be the secret of Ms. Thorner's success. Or, more specifically, the secret to commanding $250,000 -- to not work. By switching from WMAR (Channel 2), her home of 10 years, to rival WJZ (Channel 13), Ms. Thorner not only won a new, high-paying job, but also what amounts to a paid year off from newscasting as part of a no-compete clause stipulated in her old contract.

To former Channel 2 personality Susan White Bowden, Ms. Thorner -- who, according to a radio station poll in 1987, was voted both Baltimore's favorite local anchor and the city's least knowledgeable newscaster -- perfectly fits the consultant-driven image for TV anchorwomen.

"She is attractive, pretty, glamorous and reads [lines] well. And it doesn't hurt that she's a wife and a mother now," said Ms. White Bowden, who spent 22 years at the station before leaving three years ago.

"She works very well with consultants. She takes their advice. Many of us of the old school don't -- like when they wanted us to look a certain way," said Ms. White Bowden, whose recently published book, "Moonbeams Come at Dark Times," addresses howtelevision tends to push women out of the spotlight as they age. "She's gotten a lot more glamorous. When she first came to town, she was much more tailored and business-like. They've encouraged her to be more feminine."

"She has what the media want," agreed Nance Hauswald, owner of 3 West Casting Agency, and a former stylist. "She has the 'today's woman-Baltimore' look."

Ms. Hauswald, who casts models and actors in commercials, said Ms. Thorner has an instantly personable on-camera image -- something that many both in and out of the TV industry mention almost to a person.

"I think it's the backyard-fence appeal. It's something you look for in anchors -- she's like the person you would talk to over the backyard fence," said Liz O'Neil, morning and noon anchor for WBAL (Channel 11). "It speaks to the viewers that she's stayed here -- Sally's undoubtedly had other offers. They always say in broadcasting, for women, the ages from 30 to 40 are the best years, and she's spent most of those here in Baltimore."

Indeed, research of the Baltimore TV market has shown that viewersvalue longevity and stability in their anchors. Ms. Thorner's 10-year stint in Baltimore -- during which we watched her marry, divorce, remarry and have a child -- qualifies her as nearly a native, at least in the speeded-up time clock that the TV world operates on.

"She comes across as a person of the community," said Marcellus Alexander, general manager of her new employer, Channel 13.

"It's a major shake-up in TV," said Ms. Thorner's former co-worker, Brenda Carl Bridges, who left local news to raise a family. "She's done so well -- she has this ability to look at you and immediately get close to you. And the salary she's getting -- I say, 'Way to go.' "

Ms. White Bowden says Ms. Thorner has the ability to reach through the screen to viewers, which is what an anchor needs to do. "As far as viewers are concerned, [TV anchors are] a very personal, intimate thing. People do make decisions based on that," she said.

But Ms. Thorner is still a professional, some peers point out. In fact, she has been quoted in the past as saying she initially viewed Baltimore as a steppingstone to a bigger market.

"Sally did what was in the best interests of Sally. That's what you have to do," said Ken Matz, Ms. Thorner's former co-anchor from 1985 to 1990 and now an anchor-reporter at WCIX-TV in Miami.

Still, he added, "For WJZ, it's an excellent move. She's a very hot commodity to have in the market. I feel sorry for my buddies at Channel 2."

At Channel 2, general manager Arnold J. Kleiner is understandably not throwing unqualified bouquets at his departing anchorwoman.

"Familiarity doesn't automatically lead to likeability," Mr. Kleiner said.

Mr. Kleiner said that Ms. Thorner had more air time than other anchorwomen at the station, such as Beverly Burke and Rudy Miller, which may have made her more familiar to viewers, but not more important to the overall news package.

"No one person is more important than the product. That doesn't mean we don't value people, but it's the product," Mr. Kleiner said. "I can't tell you Sally was any stronger than Stan [Stovall] or any stronger than Beverly [Burke]. She did have more air time than Beverly."

Insiders speculated that Ms. Thorner's year off from the local market could diminish her current popularity. Because of the no-compete clause in her WMAR contract, she is banned from appearing on any other stations in the market for one year, meaning she will be free to join WJZ in December 1993.

"Viewer loyalties are different than they were in the past. Viewers' expectations and needs today are more for instant gratification. A year from now, who knows what their attitudes will be for someone who's been away for a year?" said Dave Roberts, news director of Channel 11.

Mr. Roberts said the station intends to take advantage of what he calls his unexpected "window of opportunity" as its two rivals spend the next year reformatting. WBAL introduced a new anchorwoman, Carol Costello, last night, and while her arrival may have been overshadowed by the news of Ms. Thorner's jump, Mr. Roberts sees it otherwise. Ms. Costello, he said, now has a year to develop her own audience without Ms. Thorner as a competing factor.

WBAL general manager Phil Stolz agreed. "Sally Thorner is a talented individual," he said, "but sitting out a year is a long time to wait for anyone."

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