Affiliates duke it out live for local news viewers

5 O'CLOCK FIGHT

April 14, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Baltimore viewers who were watching at 5 p.m. Tuesday saw something they've never before seen at that hour: honest-to-goodness, head-to-head news competition among three network affiliates -- WMAR, WJZ and WBAL.

The three-way news battle had officially started Monday when WBAL launched an early newscast with Virg Jacques and Donna Hamilton -- after having canceled its 5 p.m. news in the summer of 1991.

But it was not until 5:20 p.m. Tuesday that the new day of live-at-five competition actually arrived. That's when WBAL's Jayne Miller came on-screen, breathless and live from the Mitchell Courthouse, to give viewers the verdict in the widely publicized Nathaniel Hurt case. A few seconds later, WMAR's Alicia Taylor was also on live from the courthouse, along with WJZ's Dennis Edwards (who had been the first to report that there was a verdict at 5:03 p.m.).

By 5:30, the trio had nailed most of the story, which local columnists and editorial writers are still chewing over today, including Hurt's dramatic decision to roll the dice on a jury verdict rather than agreeing to a plea bargain that would have kept him out of jail. All three stations seemed to be running with the adrenalin pumps wide open Tuesday, and doing some very good work.

It's a scene viewers could not have seen a week ago. Last week, there were only two stations competing WMAR and WJZ. WBAL was still carrying "Donahue" at 5 p.m. -- the talk show featuring an over-the-hill Phil doing a bad imitation of his once-cutting-edge show from the 1970s.

And 16 months ago, the early-news picture was weaker yet, with only WMAR doing news at 5. WJZ then aired reruns of "Empty Nest" and "Roseanne," before launching its first early news in 46 years on Jan. 1, 1994.

So, what gives? Why more news at 5 p.m. now than at any time in the history of Baltimore television? And what does it mean for Baltimore and its viewers? If you factor in the red-hot "Ricki Lake Show" on WBFF, the 5 p.m. hour is the most-fiercely contested time period in Baltimore television, with four stations in a genuine ratings race.

WMAR General Manager Joe Lewin, whose station narrowly leads in ratings at 5 p.m., says the main reason for all the newscasts is that in a world of rapidly expanding channel choices local news is simply good business.

"As time goes on and there are more and more channels for everyone to watch, the source of the most and best local news and information programming is the one that will be left standing," Lewin said.

"We can run all the syndicated and network fare that we want, but it's just not exclusive property," he added. "And, as the information superhighway gets more and more crowded, there are simply too many other things for people to watch. I want us to be the one people turn to to find out what's going on in the local community. I suspect, the other stations want that, too."

They do.

"Our decision to launch a 5 o'clock newscast was part of our strategic plan for the station," said WJZ General Manager Marcellus Alexander. "Our strategy is to build on our news strength, evolving to become the first choice for news and information in the market.

"With the emergence of a 40- or a 500-channel universe, the days of a television station being a general store with news, entertainment and sports are numbered. News is our focus ` going forward."

WBAL General Manager Phil Stolz agrees that the future for local stations is in news.

Stolz says that's why WBAL added newscasts on Saturday and Sunday mornings in 1992 -- a time when the station started calling itself "Baltimore's 24-Hour News Station."

So, why did the station cancel its 5 p.m. newscast the year before?

"It's true we discontinued a newscast in 1991. But we always had the intention of coming back and being in the 5 o'clock business, because we think it's a very viable time period for news. It's also a great synergy with your 6 o'clock for news,"

Stolz said.

"At the time, though, we just didn't have the right lead-in programming for 5 o'clock news and our plan was to acquire that programming, and then return. . . . We now have that programming."

Stolz is referring to WBAL's acquisition of "Oprah" starting in September, as well as "Inside Edition" and "Hard Copy." The tabloid shows are now airing from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. on WBAL and are doing well in the ratings. The once-all-powerful "Oprah," which has been dropping like a brick in the ratings on WMAR, is scheduled to take over that slot in the fall.

The clearest explanation for the boom in news comes from WBAL News Director David Roberts, who says, "There's news . . . because our viewers tell us they want more news at 5. That's what our research says. But our viewers also say, 'Give us real news and information. Don't waste our time with nonsensical features and fluff.' "

Highs and lows

All three stations have research supporting their claims that viewers say they want more local news. Where the disagreement starts is over what kind of local news.

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