What the TV switch means for viewers

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

Q: What is an affiliate?

A: It's a privately owned television station aligned with a network by contract. The station agrees to air the network's programs, commercials and promotions in its city on an exclusive basis. In return, the station receives a fee from the network, as well as the right to sell some ads locally during network shows, which command top dollar.

Q: How many affiliates are there in Baltimore?

A: There are now four. They are (with their current affiliate, and new one starting tomorrow, noted parenthetically): WMAR, Channel 2 (NBC/ABC); WBAL, Channel 11 (CBS/NBC); WJZ, Channel 13 (ABC/CBS); and WBFF, Channel 45 (Fox). On Jan. 16, there will be five. That's when WNUV, Channel 54, which is now an independent, aligns with the new United/Paramount network.

Q: Will all the other stations change with the switch? When is this switch, anyway?

A: No, only the three VHF stations are changing and that happens tomorrow at 5 a.m.

Q: What is a VHF station?

A: The letters stand for "very high frequency." Technically, that refers to the radio broadcast spectrum ranging from 30 to 300 megahertz. The original 12 television channels in the United States (numbered 2 through 13), fall within this megahertz range. (Channel 1, if you were wondering, is for the military.)

In a practical sense, these channels have a stronger and clearer signal. They are also the older and more established stations. As a result, they are still the most valuable in any market.

Q: Do affiliate changes happen a lot?

A: They happen rarely. ABC and WJZ, for example, have been partners since 1948, the dawn of such relationships.

However, there was a switch among WMAR, WBAL, CBS and NBC in 1981. At that time, CBS left WMAR and joined WBAL. WMAR and NBC then became partners. One of the reasons for the 1981 switch was CBS' displeasure with the number of prime-time programs being pre-empted in Baltimore for telecasts of Orioles' baseball games.

Q: As a viewer, what do I need to pay attention to with this switch? Haven't I been through this already with channel positions changing on my cable system?

A: After the Cable Television Act of 1992, there was some channel movement on some cable systems. For example, on United in Baltimore City, WBFF moved from 45 to 4. But, in that case, everything that was on Channel 45 simply moved to Channel 4. What's tricky here is that only part of the programming on the three stations is moving to new channel positions -- the part that comes from the networks. So, some of WMAR's programs, for example, are where they always were on Channel 2, but some will now be on WBAL, Channel 11.

Q: How do I know which are the network parts?

A: That's a little tricky. But, generally, network shows consist of the following: the morning shows, such as "Good Morning America"; the soap operas, such as "Young and the Restless"; big-time sporting events not involving local teams, such as NFL games and Super Bowls; national news shows, such as "CBS Evening News with Dan Rather and Connie Chung" and "Nightline"; prime-time shows, such as "Roseanne" and "Chicago Hope"; and late-night shows, such as "The Late Show With David Letterman."

Q: What are the local parts?

A: Mainly the local newscasts -- the ones featuring Stan Stovall and Mary Beth Marsden (WMAR), Al Sanders and Denise Koch (WJZ), and Rod Daniels and Carol Costello (WBAL).

Q: That's it?

A: There are also syndicated programs, which the local stations essentially rent local rights to. These are moving, too. They include shows such as "Oprah" and "Jenny Jones."

Q: I'm not sure I can keep all that straight. What do I do if I am confused?

A: All three stations have -- or soon will -- phone lines you can call. WJZ's is (800) WATCH13 (in operation now). WBAL's is (800) 844-WBAL (it goes into service at 8 tonight). WMAR's is (410) 481-ABC2 (it starts operation at noon Tuesday).

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