Three suitors line up to call on jilted WJZ-TV

June 18, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

Thrown out by its network partner after a marriage that lasted 46 years, the owner of Baltimore's WJZ-TV finds itself already being courted by a trio of wealthy, admiring suitors.

Group W, the Westinghouse subsidiary that owns Baltimore's Channel 13, suffered what appeared on the surface to be a significant loss Thursday when much-coveted ABC announced it would move its affiliation to Scripps-Howard's WMAR (Channel 2), now an NBC affiliate.

But ABC's defection leaves Group W as the prize in a high-stakes bidding war among the NBC, CBS and Fox networks.

Jonathan Klein, president of Group W and a former general manager of WJZ, confirmed yesterday that it was holding talks with the three networks over the affiliation of his group's five stations. He said the chain was not for sale.

Asked how tough the loss of ABC would be to WJZ, Mr. Klein replied: "I would ask ABC how tough it is to lose 'JZ."

ABC's move to WMAR and the competition for Group W are part of a nationwide game of network musical chairs in which four players are competing for three low-number (VHF) channels in ++ some of the nation's largest markets.

The loser, who would likely wind up with less desirable high-number (UHF) stations in several of the nation's largest markets, could end up as the nation's No. 4 network. It is by no means certain that upstart Fox will remain in fourth place.

From a Baltimore perspective, the ABC move appeared to be a disaster for WJZ, ending its ties with a network with high ratings, the most popular news operation and the best audience demographics in the industry.

"There is much joy at MAR as I speak, and there is no joy at WJZ," said Sheldon Taule, senior vice president and director of media services at the Gray Kirk VanSant advertising agency in Baltimore.

But Scripps-Howard's decision to make a long-term commitment ABC apparently had little to do with Baltimore and a lot to do with Rupert Murdoch, the media magnate who controls Fox.

Arnold Marfoglia, former vice president of affiliate financial affairs for ABC, said the current scramble goes back to Fox's announcement last month that it would acquire New World Communications Group, which pulled 12 network affiliates away from the Big Three networks and cost Scripps-Howard its Fox affiliations in Tampa, Fla., and Phoenix, Ariz.

Two of the VHF stations Fox pulled away were CBS' affiliates in Detroit and Cleveland. When CBS set its sights on Scripps-Howard's stations in those cities, ABC reacted aggressively and cut a deal with Scripps, said Mr. Marfoglia, now a financial consultant.

Under that deal, ABC received a long-term commitment in Detroit and Cleveland in return for giving Scripps a network partner for its UHF stations in the smaller Tampa, Fla., and Phoenix markets, Mr. Marfoglia said. WMAR, he said, was thrown in as a sweetener for Scripps-Howard.

Move not surprising

Mr. Marfoglia said that ABC's willingness to split with WJZ was not surprising, even though Channel 13 has the top-rated news operation in Baltimore. "there's always been an ongoing fight over pre-emptions," he said, noting that WJZ frequently cut away from network programming to broadcast Oriole games.

The ABC move sets up a scramble in the Baltimore market.

NBC is now a network without a local affiliate. With a rival seeking a new home, CBS' position at WBAL (Channel 11) is no longer secure. And while Fox and WBFF (Channel 45) are reported to enjoy a good relationship, a network can pull more viewers to a channel numbered 11 or 13 than one that carries a FTC UHF number that will vary from cable system to cable system.

The stakes are much higher than a channel number in Baltimore, however. Group W also owns stations in Philadelphia (NBC), San Francisco (CBS), Boston (NBC) and Pittsburgh (CBS).

The first three are among the top 10 television markets in the country, and securing VHF affiliates could help Fox vault past one of its rivals, Mr. Marfoglia said. For NBC, the laggard among the three established networks, and CBS, which has already been stung by Mr. Murdoch's buccaneering ways, the consequences of losing could be devastating, he said.

On its face, NBC would seem to be in a more desperate position because it has no Baltimore affiliate and is lagging in the ratings behind No. 1 CBS and No. 2-rated ABC. But CBS' position could be more difficult. Its ratings lead depends heavily on older viewers, who are less attractive to advertisers, and its current ownership of WCAU-TV in Philadelphia poses an obstacle to any deal with Group W, Mr. Marfoglia said.

Fox has some advantages over NBC and CBS because it comes under far less stringent regulation.

For instance, because Fox offers less than 15 hours of programming each week, its affiliates are not restricted in the types of programming they can offer during the lucrative 7 p.m.-to-8 p.m. time slot.

Prime time freed up

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