ABC-TV to switch from WJZ to WMAR

June 17, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

The changes sweeping network television came to Baltimore yesterday with the announcement that all ABC shows -- including its highly regarded news and prime-time programs -- will switch from WJZ to WMAR. The move disrupts four decades of viewing habits and could change the balance of power among local stations.

ABC-TV and E. W. Scripps Co. announced a 10-year deal that will make WMAR (Channel 2) and four other Scripps-owned stations ABC affiliates by the end of this year. WMAR has been an NBC affiliate since 1981, when the last big shake-up occurred here.

The ABC-Scripps deal left WJZ (Channel 13), the city's leading ++ station and an ABC affiliate since 1948, without a network. Viewers will have to look to WMAR for such popular shows as "Roseanne," "Home Improvement" and "Coach," as well as sports programs such as "Monday Night Football."

The news rocked the once-placid Baltimore market.

"The market is definitely destabilized. The TV world has turned upside down . . . and Baltimore just felt the impact," said Dave Robinson, the media buyer in Baltimore for the W. B. Doner advertising agency.

Mr. Robinson called the switch "a terrific deal for Channel 2," and Joe Lewin, WMAR's general manager, echoed that assessment, saying that he "was very happy" with the move.

But Mr. Robinson added: "I think the most interesting part to all of this is what happens next."

Does WJZ join NBC, which no longer has a station here, or will it be wooed by Fox or even CBS, now associated with WBAL (Channel 11)?

The catalysts for this upheaval are Fox Television network and its owner, Rupert Murdoch. Last month Fox reached an agreement with New World Communications Group that resulted 12 network affiliates leaving CBS, NBC and ABC for Fox.

The group hurt most by Mr. Murdoch's raid was Scripps. Its stations in Phoenix and Tampa, Fla. -- formerly with Fox -- were left without a network. Scripps stations in Detroit and Cleveland -- both with ABC -- also were being wooed by CBS after Fox gobbled up its affiliates in those cities. In yesterday's deal, Scripps got a network affiliation for its Phoenix and Tampa stations and an upgrade for WMAR in Baltimore in return for continuing its arrangement with ABC in Detroit and Cleveland.

Neither Scripps nor ABC would say yesterday when the switches will take effect. Current contracts allow either the network or the affiliate to end the relationship with six months' notice.

"I really don't know when it will happen in Baltimore," WMAR's Mr. Lewin said yesterday. The switch is expected before the start of the new season in September, though, because it would be less confusing than switching while new shows are being introduced.

Scripps and ABC declined to discuss the specifics of compensation, saying that they had only reached agreement Wednesday and did not yet have a signed deal with all the details worked out. But the realignments mattered more than dollars and cents on this deal, according to industry analysts.

"The new 10-year agreement between ABC and one of the country's most respected media companies brings us unprecedented stability," ABC President Robert Iger said in announcing the deal.

The quest for stability

And stability in their relationships with affiliates is something the Big Three networks want very badly since Mr. Murdoch showed how tenuously those relationships are held together by the traditional one-year affiliate agreements.

Mr. Robinson explained the general cause and effect behind yesterday's deal by saying, "Rupert Murdoch realized that delivery is equal in importance to programming and that the strength of a local affiliate is a big part of what makes a network succeed or not succeed. As a result, what's happening here is that suddenly local stations are being desired."

That worked to WMAR's advantage. "I don't want to say anything to demean NBC, because we've had a good relationship with them. But ABC is a company run by broadcasters with an emphasis on news and information. And I think it's going to make for a perfect relationship with WMAR," said Mr. Lewin.

Great deal for WMAR

It is a great deal for WMAR. It now gets to be the local partner of the top-rated and most-acclaimed network news operation.

For example, instead of Jay Leno and the "Tonight" show, which finishes third locally at 11:35 p.m., WMAR will have Ted Koppel's "Nightline," which finishes first in ratings, ahead of David Letterman. Furthermore, ABC has the best demographic audience of any network for its prime-time programming and is ** expected to do even better next fall with its entertainment lineup.

As for sports, WMAR will get "Monday Night Football" but will lose the American Football Conference games on NBC. Of the two, "Monday Night Football" is considered a better draw in this market.

But industry analysts say don't cry for WJZ. With its top-rated local news operation and the Orioles' broadcasts, WJZ is exactly the kind of an affiliate expected to thrive in the new world of station relations.

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