WBAL takes pre-emptive strike at WJZ

August 19, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

In the first fallout from the shake-up in Baltimore's television market, WBAL said yesterday that it is dropping five shows in the CBS fall lineup in order to cash in on syndicated shows and reruns that are more lucrative.

WBAL made the decision because it will be leaving CBS in January, when all of the city's major stations are switching networks, and it can make more money off advertising for the syndicated shows than it can with the network shows.

Stations rarely pre-empt network shows during the peak viewing hours of 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., but WBAL's decision is indicative of the turmoil that has reigned in the city's TV market since the first network swap earlier this summer.

"That large a pre-emption is definitely unusual. But this is a very unusual time we're in with all the network-affiliate changes -- there's never been a time like it," said Debbie Stein, regional broadcast director for the Earle Palmer Brown advertising agency. "The problem with this stuff is that the viewer is really the one who gets hurt, because they're totally confused."

Next month, when the fall season begins, viewers no longer will ** be able to turn to Channel 11 for three returning series: "Hearts Afire," starring Markie Post; "Diagnosis Murder," with Dick Van Dyke; and "Love and War," featuring Annie Potts. The new shows that won't be seen on WBAL are "Daddy's Girls," a sitcom starring Dudley Moore, and "The Five Mrs. Buchanans," a sitcom featuring Judith Ivey.

These three hours of programming will be pre-empted by the syndicated "Baywatch," reruns of "Who's The Boss?" and "Murphy Brown," and another show not yet determined, said Phil Stolz, WBAL's general manager.

WBAL's move follows a summer of radical change in network-affiliate relationships in Baltimore. All three of the city's major stations will have new network partners in January.

WBAL will go from CBS to NBC, while WJZ (Channel 13) goes from ABC to CBS. WMAR (Channel 2) will leave NBC and join ABC.

WBAL had hoped to make its move to NBC on Aug. 29, before the fall schedule started. But that move was blocked by WJZ, which had wanted to stay with ABC until its contract ends in January and persuaded CBS to go along.

"When CBS lost the NFL football games last year, we had to go out and get some [syndicated] programs on our own to fill those hours," Mr. Stolz said in explaining the move yesterday. "And now, through pre-emptions of the network, we're going to get a chance to make use of these shows for the next four months. We think it's good business for us and better shows for our viewers."

Marcellus Alexander, general manager of WJZ, disagreed: "It doesn't sound to me like 'BAL cares very much about Baltimore viewers. Their move to pre-empt fresh programming in favor of reruns is obviously an attempt to undermine potentially successful shows that are coming to 'JZ, generate some revenue and confuse the viewers."

Tony C. Malara, the CBS president for affiliate relations, said yesterday that he had not been notified by WBAL of any such pre-emptions.

But, he added, if WBAL does pre-empt the network programming, CBS will do "everything we can to protect CBS pTC interests in Baltimore and to see that CBS programs are seen in Baltimore."

CBS likely will offer the shows to other local stations -- as it did last year with "The Late Show With David Letterman," airing it on WNUV (Channel 54) when WBAL declined to carry it.

But it's unlikely that any other Baltimore station will pick up the shows that WBAL plans to pre-empt, which Ms. Stein described as "not exactly the cream of the crop." Mr. Van Dyke's "Diagnosis Murder," for example, has the oldest demographics of any weekly network series.

One of the most intriguing programming moves by WBAL occurs on Monday at 9:30 p.m., when it will sub reruns of "Murphy Brown" for "Love and War." The result will be a CBS-owned, first-run episode of "Murphy Brown" at 9 p.m. followed by a WBAL-owned rerun at 9:30.

Local viewers who want to see CBS' complete prime-time lineup can try tuning in WUSA, the CBS affiliate in Washington. For cable subscribers in Baltimore City and County that will mean disconnecting their cable and trying to grab Channel 9's over-the-air signal.

The move appears to be good business for WBAL and could make the station an extra $500,000 in revenues by year's end. The additional money comes from WBAL controlling all advertising sales during the prime-time periods of pre-emptions, instead of the network controlling the majority.

For example, during any given hour of prime time, there are at least 12 minutes of advertising for sale. Under the current contract, CBS would get nine of the minutes to sell nationally, while WBAL had only three to sell locally. WBAL will now get the full 12 minutes.

Could WBAL be paying CBS back or hoping that CBS might pressure WJZ into agreeing to make the move sooner, as Mr. Alexander suggested?

Mr. Stolz says that's not what the pre-emptions are about. But he does admit that he's unhappy with the delay, which he says is the result of WJZ trying to squeeze every last dollar out of its relationship with ABC.

"It's like WJZ and CBS agree to get married, but 'JZ wants to go out with its old girlfriend [ABC] for four more months before the wedding," Mr. Stolz said yesterday.

"I'd say it sounds like WBAL is trying to [pressure] CBS, sure," Ms. Stein said.

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