Mary Beth Marsden to replace Sally Thorner at anchor desk

November 12, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,TV Critic

Mary Beth Marsden yesterday went from the relative obscurity of weekend newscasting to co-anchoring the most-watched show in all of Baltimore TV. WMAR (Channel 2) picked Marsden, 32, to replace the departing Sally Thorner as co-anchor of its 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts starting Dec. 1.

With the 5 o'clock news period becoming so lucrative and fiercely competitive that WJZ (Channel 13) is paying Thorner $250,000 next year to keep her off the air at Channel 2, the selection of Thorner's replacement is a major play in a high-stakes game. The level of those stakes is suggested by industry estimates that Channel 2 could make as much as $800,000 to $1 million more off its 5 o'clock program this year compared to last year as a result of its audience growth.

Marsden's salary under a new three-year contract is estimated to start at about $150,000 a year. That's less than the 37-year-old Thorner was making, but, if Marsden's pairing with Stan Stovall keeps viewers tuned to Channel 2, the salary is likely to rise. Such annual incentives are often built into contracts for news anchors.

TC Marsden declined specific comment on the $150,000 figure, but seemed delighted with her new salary when asked about it in an interview at the station yesterday. "Let's just say . . . the salary is standard," she said.

Both Marsden and management stressed her Maryland roots in their comments yesterday. Marsden is a graduate of the University of Maryland at College Park. Her parents live in Rockville. She has been at Channel 2 since 1988.

"When I started here, I was a reporter in the early morning hours, and then I got a job as a weekend anchor," Marsden said. "So that was a logical move for me and a great opportunity. And this is another step up. And it's nice to know that you can advance within an organization. So often in television, people are so transient and they move around from station to station. It's nice to be able to grow within a community and within an organization."

In the hotly contested world that local TV news has become since overnight audience measurements went into effect last month, such remarks about "community" and transience are not made in innocence. They are made with an awareness that Baltimore viewers tell researchers they like stability more than almost anything else in their anchor teams, and that two of the three women Marsden will now be competing with are relative newcomers to Baltimore. Lisa Willis, co-anchor at WBFF-Channel arrived a year ago. Carol Costello, co-anchor at Channel 11, arrived just last month.

The overnight meters are the explanation for almost everything happening in local TV these days -- and yesterday was no exception.

One thing that makes Thorner so valuable to Channel 13 is the expectation that the new measurements would show that Channel 2 -- not Channel 13 -- had the most-watched newscast in Baltimore. By hiring Thorner, Channel 13 hoped to both take some of the wind out of Channel 2's sails at 5 o'clock and strengthen the perception of it as the city's top news station.

Nine days into the new ratings survey, the numbers show Channel 2's early news to be not only the most-watched newscast, but the most-watched of any show in Baltimore. Its audience is even bigger than the audience for such syndicated blockbusters as "Oprah" and "Jeopardy!"

The result is that 30 seconds of advertising time during the newscast, which was selling for an estimated $550 last year at this time, is now selling for about $850, according to local media buyers. And they expect that rate to go even higher with the new metered ratings. That's what the Thorner raid by Channel 13 was mainly about. And that's why so much is riding on Marsden's ability to step in and hold the fort.

One other subplot to yesterday's announcement involves Beverly Burke, Stovall's co-anchor on Channel 2's 6 o'clock newscast and the other contender for Thorner's spot. Burke could not be reached for comment, but News Director Jack Cahalan and General Manager Arnold J. Kleiner said it was not a case of Burke's being beat out by Marsden.

"Beverly was already a main anchor," Kleiner said. "She anchors the 6 and does Contact 2, which is one of the most valuable things we have going. This is not a case of Mary Beth moving ahead of Beverly. Beverly is a main anchor and will continue to be a main anchor."

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