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ABC-TV to switch from WJZ to WMAR

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

"There are a lot of good options, and they are being explored with all the networks," WJZ General Manager Marcellus Alexander said yesterday, adding that it's not automatic that his station will now align with NBC.

While Mr. Alexander declined to discuss specifics, one possibility that has been reported in trade publications is that Fox might buy Group W, which owns WJZ. If that happened, WJZ would be the new home of Bart Simpson in Baltimore, while Al Sanders and Denise Koch would be delivering the news at 10 p.m. instead of 11.

And, if that happened, what would become of WBFF (Channel 45), the current Fox affiliate? Whom would it be aligned with?

Fox is expected to meet with Group W to discuss a possible affiliation with WJZ in Baltimore whether or not other Group W stations would get involved.

But there is also the possibility that CBS would leave WBAL (Channel 11) when their agreement ends if it can make a deal with Group W for WJZ. Phil Stolz, the general manager of WBAL, could not be reached last night for comment.

"There's going to be a lot of confusion with this change," Mr. Alexander said yesterday. "In fact, we've had some calls already from people who are saying, 'Will we still be able to see Al and Denise?'

"We will continue to be committed to local news, and all the anchors and reporters people know will be in place. WJZ will continue to be WJZ," he said.


Q. What's an affiliate?

A. A privately owned broadcast station aligned with a network by contract.

Q. How can such a station, like WMAR, just up and switch?

A. Traditionally, most contracts between networks and affiliates run only for one or two years. When the contract is up, there's nothing to prevent a switch. Though networks presented themselves to the public as mighty institutions covering the world, in truth, they were mainly confederations of autonomous local stations.

Q. Then why did some stations and networks stay together 45 years, like WJZ and ABC?

A. Because, up until the last decade, there were only three networks and it was to their mutual advantage not to encourage change.

The tradition was for affiliates and networks to stay together developing a synergy. For example, an ABC affiliate in Boston might call its local morning program "Good Morning Boston" to link it to the network's "Good Morning America."

While affiliate changes did take place, they were relatively rare. There was an affiliate switch in Baltimore in 1981 when WBAL and WMAR swapped affiliations with NBC and CBS, respectively.

Q. How is this going to affect me directly as a viewer?

A. Sometime before Jan. 1 (probably before the start of the fall season in September), all of ABC's programming is going to move from WJZ to WMAR.

For viewers watching Baltimore stations, that means such shows as "Home Improvement," "Coach" and "Roseanne" are going to be on Channel 2 instead of Channel 13.

You will also have to tune to Channel 2 instead on Channel 13 if you want to watch "World News Tonight With Peter Jennings" or "Nightline."

Q. What about the Orioles' games on WJZ?

A. No change. They will stay there.

Q. What about Al Sanders, Denise Koch, Sally Thorner and the others on WJZ? Will they stay put, too?

A. Yes, they work for WJZ. That has nothing to do with the networks.

Q. What about Stan Stovall and Mary Beth Marsden on WMAR?

A. That's the same situation; they work for WMAR.

Q. What happens to NBC programs, like "Seinfeld" or "Homicide"?

L A. As of today, NBC does not have an affiliate in Baltimore.

Q. You mean, "Homicide" finally gets back on the air this fall, but I can't see it?

A. You could always watch on the Washington NBC affiliate. But in all likelihood, one of the Baltimore stations will align itself with NBC by September. It is not clear, though, which station that will be, since NBC is not the most attractive network in terms of ratings.

Q. Since WJZ doesn't have a network, won't NBC and WJZ just team up?

A. Not necessarily. WJZ, because of its strong local news and other assets, will possibly be wooed by Fox and CBS.

Q. You mean, it could get even more confusing, with another affiliation that's already in place being broken up in coming months?

A. Yes; in fact, that's exactly what many in local TV think will happen.

Q. How did we get from stable to chaotic?

A. There are a lot of long-term factors involved in the dramatically changing TV landscape, but start with Rupert Murdoch and Fox. Mr. Murdoch wasn't interested in tradition and playing ball the way the Big Three did when it came to network-affiliate relations. Last month, he showed what paper tigers the networks were when he got 12 affiliates to jump to Fox by offering their group owner, New World Communications Corp., more money than CBS, NBC or ABC did.

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