Delaying switches until Jan. annoys WMAR, WBAL

August 05, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Baltimore's multi-station switch has been put on hold until Jan. 2. While that should make for less viewer confusion when the new television season starts next month, it's making for some hard feelings among local broadcasters who wanted to make the move this month.

WJZ and its owner, Group W, are responsible for the big switch taking place later rather than sooner here.

The Jan. 2 date was announced at a meeting yesterday in Philadelphia between Group W and CBS. The parties met to work out details of their new and extremely complicated network-affiliates agreement, which was signed July 14 and involves stations in five major TV markets, including Baltimore.

"We feel the additional time allows for more planning and a jTC smooth transition," WJZ General Manager Marcellus Alexander said yesterday from Philadelphia. "It addresses advertiser and station issues, while allowing us to help our viewers through the change."

WJZ is an ABC affiliate but is headed to CBS come Jan. 2. WBAL, which is now with CBS, will join NBC on that date. And WMAR, the current NBC affiliate, will align with ABC at that time.

WBFF will stay with Fox.

All the movement started in June when Scripps Howard Broadcasting, which owns WMAR, signed a new deal with ABC on behalf of its stations. As a result, ABC ended a 45-year relationship here with WJZ.

The network-affiliate contracts currently in effect have clauses requiring six months' notice when one of the parties wants out. WJZ is delaying the switches here by holding ABC to nearly all of its six months, while WBAL had agreed to let CBS out of its deal by Aug. 29.

"I'm disappointed and surprised to hear about the January date," said Phil Stolz, WBAL general manager, yesterday. "Five of the six parties [the three networks and their local affiliates] involved wanted to make the switch on Aug. 29, before the start of the new television season,

"It's almost like they [WJZ] didn't want to be with CBS. I think it's a short-term business decision on their part to hang on to the rest of the year with the ABC programming they have now," he added.

Mr. Stolz speculates that WJZ is delaying the switch because it will make more money for the next five months with ABC than with CBS. "Monday Night Football," the World Series (if there is one) and the premiere prime-time schedule make ABC attractive to advertisers.

Joe Lewin, general manager of WMAR, agreed with Mr. Stolz's assessment, saying: "Technologically, and every other way, this change could happen almost instantly. And we'd like it to happen right away. But it's their [WJZ] call, because they have a six-month 'out' with ABC."

Mr. Alexander yesterday denied that WJZ was trying to hang on to ABC, adding that CBS also wanted to switch on Jan. 2 rather than Aug. 29, as Mr. Stolz claimed.

"In talking through the issues relative to the Jan. 2 date, CBS agrees with the [Group W] logic and is on board," Mr. Alexander said.

George F. Schweitzer, the CBS senior vice president for marketing, confirmed that yesterday, saying: "To go into this huge change in January rather than in just four weeks gives us a tremendous advantage in the marketplace. We know the market [Baltimore] is very important to us.

"It has to be handled the right way, and that's why we're looking for this additional time."

When told what WBAL and WMAR were saying, Mr. Schweitzer said: "That's what competitors say. What are they going to do, say it's a smart move? That's why they're called competitors."

The Group W decision also involves other markets, each with its own set of conditions. So, it's not solely based on the dynamics of Baltimore.

As for the confusion factor, Mr. Alexander and Mr. Schweitzer say the delay means less confusion for viewers, while Mr. Stolz and Mr. Lewin say it means more.

"Look," Mr. Stolz said, "September is traditionally a time when programming changes are made. All the syndicated switches -- like Sally Jesse Raphael joining us -- are made in September, so that's a natural time to do this. Now, there will be two periods of change -- one in September and one in January."

Cleveland, a market undergoing similar affiliate upheaval, is making its changes in September, before the start of the new season, Mr. Stolz noted.

"I would like to do this as soon as possible so that we could reduce the confusion and the angst among viewers," said WMAR's Mr. Lewin. "If we can do this right away, just get on with it, there would be far less confusion than there surely will be in coming months with all of us talking and worrying about it."

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