Sally Thorner shines again, as WJZ's 5 p.m. news anchor A Star Is Reborn

January 02, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Fake brick walls made of papier-mache. A surprisingly flimsy anchor desk of blond wood standing on a carpeted platform. A couch and two chairs grouped together in front of archways that open to an illusion of endless blue sky. Three huge cameras and too many hanging overhead lights to count.

Welcome to the backstage world of TV news, where everything the cameras photograph is designed to look better on your TV screen than it does in real life.

In this case, it's Studio A at WJZ (Channel 13), the ABC affiliate and longtime ratings leader in Baltimore.

Today it feels like a warehouse. But tomorrow at 5 p.m. -- when they fire up the cameras and send thousands of watts of electricity dancing through all the Videssence sound stage lights -- it will snap, crackle, pop and gleam like a Broadway stage in living rooms all over Maryland.

Tomorrow is opening night for one of the most important productions in the history of Baltimore television -- WJZ's new 5 o'clock news with Sally Thorner.

For the record, WJZ calls it "Eyewitness News at Five" and has an impressive-looking press kit that stresses its "four-member news team -- Sally Thorner as news anchor joined by John Buren, Bob Turk and Sandra Pinckney."

But Thorner's the franchise. She's the free agent for whom WJZ general manager Marcellus Alexander took out the checkbook and paid $250,000 in November 1992.

You remember that check, the one that made Page One news. Thorner was paid $250,000 from Dec. 1, 1992, to Dec. 1, 1993, for not working. That's because a non-compete clause in her old contract with WMAR (Channel 2) kept her off the air.

Lots of people in Baltimore couldn't believe that a TV station could want an anchorperson that badly.

Actually, Thorner's contract with WJZ runs to December 1997. So there are going to be five of those $250,000 paydays for the 38-year-old Thorner if everything goes according to plan. That's how badly WJZ wanted her.

But the year of easy money is over now. It's a year Thorner says she spent "first and foremost with family" -- her 2 1/2 -year-old son, Everett, and her husband, Brian Rosenfeld, 40, an assistant professor specializing in critical care at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

She started at WJZ on Dec. 1 and has been substituting for other vacationing anchors this month. Tomorrow, she launches the newscast that WJZ hired her for -- the one management is betting a big chunk of the farm on.

Thorner sat on the news set in Studio A recently to talk about herself and the newscast. Around her, painters, carpenters and set dressers painted, pounded and primped the room, working to make the setting just right for WJZ's new anchor-desk jewel.

Advertisers lined up

During the week of Christmas, when we spoke, advertisers were lining up to buy time during Week 1 of "Eyewitness News at Five" on the bet that most of Baltimore would be tuning in to check out the reincarnation of Sally Thorner on WJZ.

"This is awkward, but since you asked me last week to specifically think about what viewers see when they look at me on TV . . . I've come up with a couple of thoughts," Thorner says.

"First of all, there have been a number of people who have seen my work on 'JZ in the prototypes that we've been doing, who have said, 'You seem different than you were on [Channel] 2. You seem more relaxed, more natural, funnier.'

"And part of it is that I'm writing for this show. I'm now speaking words that I've written, so it's bound to be more natural. There's a certain peace that comes with knowing your stuff. That's one thing.

"And the other thing is that the Sally that people now see [on TV] is exactly the same Sally that people see at the Giant. I'm a mother, I'm a wife, I'm an adult now. I'm not an anchorgirl. I'm an anchorwoman.

"When I came here, I was 27 years old, fresh out of Kansas, single. I was a work-in-progress.

"And I feel like now I see stories the same way a lot of my viewers do. Now I am the viewer. So, when I'm reading a story, it's not just a police blotter to me, because I'm going to picture myself. I mean, remember those horrible carjackings that were going on a year ago? I was Pam Basu. I was in the car taking my 2 1/2 -year-old to school. It was very personal to me.

"I feel like when I started in this business, I used to idolize Jessica Savitch" -- the anchorwoman who joined NBC in 1977 and who quickly rose to national prominence, but who was killed in a freak car accident in 1983.

"But I think I was play-acting at being an anchor when I was 22 years old. You know, 'And this is Sally announcing the news . . . to the masses.' And that's so wrong on so many levels. I think that's all part of how I've changed and what people will see on 'JZ when they tune in. Like I said, now I feel like I am the viewer."

News viewers

WJZ is telling advertisers there's an audience of about 517,000 viewers from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. weeknights, and that about 207,000 of them watch news. Despite changing lifestyles, the majority of those news viewers are women.

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