Scrambled TV channels

June 21, 1994

Baltimoreans have been reading for some time how the electronic entertainment/information world was turning topsy-turvy. Now it is happening here. By switching its affiliation from WJZ-TV (channel 13) to WMAR-TV (channel 2), the ABC network will force changes in a lot more than local viewers' VCR settings. On top of that, the world of mega-channel television via telephone will enter the Baltimore market next year, if Bell Atlantic gets federal approval. Many cable customers in the metropolitan area will contemplate a new phenomenon: competition for their dollars.

The immediate impact of ABC's move will be to touch off a scramble to gain or retain dominance of the Baltimore market. It is also a reminder that Baltimore's three leading commercial TV stations are themselves part of chains.

E.W. Scripps Co., which owns WMAR, made a deal to affiliate its five stations with ABC. Westinghouse Broadcasting, which owns WJZ and other stations, needs a network affiliation for its local outlet. And WBAL-TV (channel 11), owned by Hearst Corp., must guard against an attempt to snatch its CBS affiliation. Only WBFF (channel 45), affiliated with the expanding Fox network, is locally owned and free to make its own deals.

Ultimately the ABC-Scripps deal, a reaction to Fox's snatching 12 affiliates from the three major networks, will be seen as just the first of many new alignments vying for viewers' time -- and thus advertisers' dollars. WMAR's discarded NBC franchise is up for grabs -- but by WJZ or WBFF? Will empire-building Rupert Murdoch see an opportunity to strengthen Fox in the nation's 22nd largest TV market? Bell Atlantic, which dominates local telephone service here, not long ago sought to merge with Tele-Communications Inc. Now it is challenging TCI directly by invading the turf of United Artists Cable, a TCI subsidiary which has had Baltimore City to itself.

The cable giants like TCI and Comcast, which will also face competition from Bell Atlantic in Baltimore and Howard counties, are not likely to sit still. Cable companies are already entering local telephone markets. It is still not clear how this heightened competition among communications giants for access to viewers' homes will unfold. Technology in the telecommunications industry is moving too quickly for its marketers to keep up. Stay tuned.

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