Get ready, get set, get confused, in TV's big switch in Baltimore Changing Channels

January 01, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

It's Monday night. The holidays are over, and you sit your weary self down in front of the television set -- aching for the comforting rhythms and easy familiarity of your favorite prime-time shows.

You tune in WJZ, looking for "Coach," but instead you find . . . "The Nanny"?

But isn't the "The Nanny" supposed to be on WBAL? So you click to WBAL, and there's (yipes!) the "Fresh Prince of Bel Air."

What's going on here? How'd the coach, the nanny and the fresh prince get mixed up?

The answer: the switch -- the historic, three-way rearrangement of television networks and their affiliates in Baltimore.

You've been hearing about it since last summer, when Fox Broadcasting's Rupert Murdoch set off a billion-dollar game of musical chairs by raiding 12 affiliates from the old-line networks of CBS, ABC and NBC. Now it's here, and channel surfers across Maryland who aren't paying attention are headed for a wipeout.

Starting at 5 a.m. tomorrow:

* WMAR (Channel 2), formerly with NBC, aligns with ABC.

* WBAL (Channel 11), formerly with CBS, aligns with NBC.

* WJZ (Channel 13), ABC's Baltimore affiliate for 46 years, joins CBS.

OK, so the local stations are switching; they're going to air shows from a different network. But viewers will still be able to see all the networks, right? And the local news and talk personalities are still going to be there, right?

How big a deal is this, anyway?

In some ways it's a very big deal, say industry analysts and television station executives. But in other ways, they add, it's nothing to lose any sleep over.

"Within the industry, it is a very big deal. It's historic, the biggest realignment since the early 1950s, when many affiliate-network relationships were first established," says Douglas Gomery, media economist at the University of Maryland College Park. "This undoes relationships of 40 or more years.

"But, on the other hand, in the era of channel-surfing and grazing, especially for younger viewers, it's not such a big deal," he adds. "There will be confusion and anxiety initially, but, in a few months, it's likely that most viewers won't even remember it happened."

Executives at the three Baltimore TV stations involved in the switch agree.

"From what we have seen in other markets that have changed, there is an intense but short period of confusion. And, then, viewers find the programs they are looking for with the help of TV guides and remote controls," says Marcellus Alexander, general manager of WJZ (Channel 13). "Viewers don't watch networks per se. They watch programs."

"Here's what I think will happen when we switch," says WMAR general manager Joe Lewin. "We'll all be flooded with calls. Even the cable systems will probably be flooded with calls, because viewers often call the cable company when something goes wrong.

"But, in pretty quick order, viewers will find their favorite shows and settle back in with them," Mr. Lewin adds. "It's a truism: People don't watch stations, they watch programs. . . . The remote control changed everything."

And, says WBAL general manager Phil Stolz: "I think viewers will be surprised to find out that, in fact, the call letters, the channel numbers, all of the local news people and a lot of the programs they already watch will still be on the station. During those portions of the day where network shows air, there will be initial confusion. But once viewers realize what network shows are where, I think it will be a relatively easy adjustment."

Easy relative to what?

Baltimore is the first city ever in which all three network affiliates will switch, so there is no precedent. But last month in Detroit -- when WJBK moved from CBS to Fox, and CBS wound up aligning with an independent, WGPR -- 10,000 calls were logged at WJBK during the first two days, according to Chuck Ross of Inside Media. Ten thousand phone calls in two days is pretty intense by anybody's standards.

That's why the three Baltimore stations have set up phone numbers and phone banks to handle the onslaught of calls they are expecting.

"We have a rotating group of about 55 people who will operate in different shifts during the day, so that you can call 24 hours a day and get a WBAL staff person to take your call," says Emerson Coleman, broadcast operations manager at WBAL.

"And our goal is to help people. We'll tell you what's on whatever station it is," he adds. "If you want to know where to find 'The Young and the Restless,' we'll tell you that show is moving to 'JZ, and we'll give you 'JZ's switch phone number."

All three stations say their primary goal is helping viewers find their favorite shows. But they are also using phone lines, TV advertisements and newspaper inserts appearing today to promote their own stations.

The inserts provide some useful information, but they also contain some spin-doctoring. For example, in WMAR's newspaper insert, titled "Your Guide to the Great Network Shift of '95," the question is posed: "Why are the local stations switching their affiliates?"

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