WBAL will switch to NBC by year's end

July 28, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

The upheaval in Baltimore's television market ended yesterday as NBC announced that it was moving to WBAL, the last of a series of deals in which nearly every station in town has switched networks.

NBC and the Hearst Broadcasting Group, which owns WBAL, said the switch would take place by the end of the year.

It will make Channel 11 the new home of AFC professional football and such shows as "Seinfeld," "Frasier" and "Homicide."

"I'm elated, because I think NBC is a perfect fit for us, not only what they're doing now but well into the future," said WBAL General Manager Phil Stolz. "It gets us back into the sports business in a big way."

He noted that NBC gives the station "pro football, basketball, baseball -- the potential of Orioles in a playoff game -- and the biggest one of them all, in the summer of '96 live in prime time, the Summer Olympics."

The network swapping began in July with the announcement that ABC would move from WJZ to WMAR. A month later, CBS announced it was moving to WJZ. That left WBAL without a network, a situation resolved by yesterday's deal.

With Tuesday's announcement that WNUV, previously an independent, would affiliate with the new Paramount network to be launched in January, all five local network-affiliate relations are now set. WBFF will stay with Fox.

David Robinson, media director at the W. B. Doner advertising agency in Baltimore, said that the station that started all the tumult wound up with the best deal.

"WMAR is the winner in all this," he said. "It picked up the most recognized network news operation and the strongest established brand name in prime time with ABC."

While all the contracts call for the changes to be made by the end of the year, some could occur before Labor Day so that local stations don't have to promote a fall lineup of shows for a network they'll be leaving.

"We are committed to building the strongest possible distribution system for NBC programming," said NBC Television Network President Neil Braun in announcing the deal for WBAL.

"This agreement guarantees that for the long term, viewers in Baltimore will be able to see quality NBC programming on Channel 11."

The contract between Hearst and NBC is believed to run for 10 years, although none of the parties would confirm that figure.

John G. Conomikes, general manager of the Hearst Broadcasting Group, said NBC's lineup of sports, news and entertainment "is a perfect complement to WBAL's local programming. The affiliation makes a strong station even better."

Mr. Robinson, of W. B. Doner, offered a less upbeat analysis of what the move to NBC might mean for WBAL.

"Something that's often overlooked is that the CBS soaps [daytime soap operas] in this market have always been powerful . . . and WBAL loses that to WJZ," he said.

"In late night, WBAL now goes from [David] Letterman to [Jay] Leno. . . . And, in terms of football, you have to ask how strong is AFC football in this market. I think . . . they [WBAL] took a couple of steps backward on this whole thing," Mr. Robinson said.

Mr. Robinson's overall analysis is that WBAL wound up the last in the channel-changing sweepstakes, behind WMAR and WJZ.

WNUV's decision to align with with Paramount should be a good deal for the station and Baltimore viewers. It will bring more first-run programming -- like "Star Trek: Voyager," which is produced by Paramount -- to viewers, and the station won't have to get into a bidding war to buy it.

But there are still many problems involved in Paramount's effort to get its network off the ground in January. Even if its does, don't anticipate a huge change in the on-air look at WNUV. Initially, Paramount will provide its affiliates with only four hours of programming a week -- two hours each on Monday and Tuesday nights.

WBFF also could come out a winner amid all the flux by staying with Fox. Historically, say industry analysts, when there's affiliate-network change in a market, stations that don't change see improved ratings.

Fox officials said they wanted to upgrade from WBFF to WBAL. Talks were held between Fox and WBAL's owners, but ultimately NBC offered a better deal.

All this change is merely a prelude to what's going to happen when the actual switches take effect, said network executives.

"I think, if you look at history and you study markets in which networks have made shifts, you'll find that there's a loss of equilibrium, viewers get very confused," said Bob Iger, the president of ABC.

"It's clearly going to be in some markets the biggest upheaval and highest level of viewer confusion ever seen," said John Miller, executive VP for advertising and promotion at NBC. He said the network would be sending a "promo task force" to Baltimore to help WBAL "figure out the best way for us to take advantage of the opportunity that avails itself by all of the turmoil."

Since the churn started in May, when 12 affiliated stations around the country left their networks for Fox, network and local station executives have received scores of calls and letters from confused viewers.

NBC and CBS said last week they are about to launch huge advertising campaigns on a city-by-city basis to help viewers find their shows as the station switches go into effect.

When will that happen? That's the next story in this summer of shake up in network-affiliate relations.

"OK, so, we have the lineup settled," W. B. Doner's Mr. Robinson said yesterday.

"Now all we have to do is get six big broadcasting companies to work out the dates."

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