Arnold J. Kleiner, who in 12 years took WMAR-TV from last place in local news and made it a contender, resigned yesterday as general manager of the NBC affiliate.
On July 16, Mr. Kleiner will take over as president and general manager of the CBS affiliate in San Diego, KFMB-TV, as well as of radio stations KFMB-AM and KFMB-FM.
Assistant General Manager Emily Barr will run Channel 2 until a permanent replacement is named.
"This was not an easy decision for me," Mr. Kleiner said yesterday. "I have good friends and great contacts here. But it's a chance I couldn't pass up. When I came here in 1981, our news was a joke. Our station was so bad you could hide from the police on our news. . . . I'm proud of what we've accomplished."
Competitors agreed that Mr. Kleiner, 50, improved Channel 2 tremendously during his tenure.
"Our market has become very competitive . . . and Arnie helped make it that way," said Joe Heston, vice president and station manager of WBAL-TV (Channel 11).
"Arnie helped to build a beleaguered third-place station into a competitive position with shows like "Oprah," "Donahue" and the Orioles [baseball telecasts]. I just wonder if Arnie saw this as a way to move to a pleasant environment and a more relaxed situation."
Other local broadcast executives could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Despite Channel 2's growth, Mr. Kleiner leaves behind a station facing major challenges.
Channel 2's great strength is its 5 o'clock newscast, the most-watched news program in Baltimore according to recent Nielsen ratings.
But Channel 2 has no other news competition at that time. In December, WJZ (Channel 13) plans to launch a competing 5 o'clock newscast anchored by Sally Thorner, formerly an anchorwoman at Channel 2.
There is also much speculation about the future of Channel 2 and the Baltimore Orioles. Scripps Howard Broadcasting Co. bought the station in 1991 from Gillett Broadcasting for $125 million.
There are questions about whether Scripps Howard is willing to pay what it will take to keep the Orioles on Channel 2.
Mr. Kleiner said that his relationship with Scripps Howard has been a good one and that Scripps has given Channel 2 the money it needs to be competitive.
In a memo to the Channel 2 staff yesterday, Frank Gardner, the head of the Scripps Howard TV stations, praised Mr. Kleiner as "an original, an institution and one hell of a broadcaster."
Mr. Kleiner was considered the dean of area broadcast executives.
Before joining Channel 2, he worked as a salesman and sales manager for Channel 13.
His tenure at Channel 2 was a colorful one marked by confrontations with NBC when he felt network programming was not good enough for local viewers.
In 1983, for example, he pre-empted Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" and replaced it with reruns of "Benson," "WKRP in Cincinnati" and "Cheers." The "Tonight Show" pre-emption lasted six years. In recent years, Mr. Kleiner has been an outspoken critic of NBC News.
"I do play hardball," Mr. Kleiner said. "But I was always honest. My job was not to be the nicest guy. My goal was to be fair. I fought for the station."