Flickering hopes at WMAR Television: Channel 2 has been working to get out of the ratings cellar, but no one seems to have noticed.

November 09, 1997|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

A year ago, WMAR, Channel 2, was at the bottom of Baltimore's TV news ratings heap and sinking. So new people were put in charge and given a simple mission: Make Things Better.

A year later, WMAR is still at the bottom of Baltimore's ratings heap, and the ratings numbers have gotten worse. But station management insists WMAR is heading in the right direction.

"When you sit back and think, jeez, it's been a year, it looks like we're moving pretty slow," Vice President and General Manager Steven Gigliotti says. "But when you think about it, it's not. To get the right individuals and then to focus on the areas -- sales, news, marketing and promotion -- that needed work, it's a real task. And we're about 90 percent of the way there."

To the surprise of many, the station's new management didn't fire the station's on-air talent and start from scratch. Instead, they've been content with working behind the scenes, tinkering with the news format and, as they explain it, giving the people who are already there a chance to succeed.

"A television station, when running well, is a finely tuned, complicated machine," says Gigliotti, who came to WMAR from Sacramento, Calif., in October 1996. "In the past few years, this finely tuned machine had started to break down."

The numbers suggest Gigliotti and his team -- which includes a new promotions director, station manager/news director and sales manager -- have a lot of repair work ahead of them. Since October 1996, WMAR's total market share has fallen from 12 to 10 (share is the percentage of the viewing audience tuned to a particular station). WBAL (Channel 11) fell from 20 to a 17 share, while WJZ (Channel 13) climbed from 16 to 17.

The station's news division is doing even worse: its 11 p.m. newscast earned only a 9 share in October, compared with 19 for both WJZ and WBAL; even WBFF's 10 p.m. news on Channel 45, with a 10 share, performed better. In terms of viewers, WMAR's flagship newscast was watched by about 57,000 fewer households than WJZ's and 54,000 fewer than WBAL's.

Additionally, WMAR gave up its affiliation with top-rated NBC in 1995 to go with the now third-rated network, ABC. Taking prime-time programming (8 p.m.-11 p.m.) as a whole, WMAR finished October with a 10 share, compared with 18 for WBAL (NBC) and 17 for WJZ (CBS).

And a few years back, the station lost rights to the mega-popular "Oprah Winfrey Show," losing what could have been a perfect lead-in to one of its daily newscasts.

No drastic change

As weak as WMAR's numbers are, they're not what some media observers find most surprising. To them, the real question is, why hasn't there been a more dramatic change at the station?

"I think they came in with strong guns and a lot of intentions, and I'm not sure that the follow-up was there," says Jane Goldstrom, media buyer for the advertising firm of Malis Goldstrom Hopson. "They need to rework everything and present it as a package. It's time for them to do something."

A year ago, say WMAR's managers, the news division was a place where creativity was ignored, where a chasm seemed to exist between the station and the community it was supposed to serve, where too much attention was paid to making money and not enough to making friends.

The way to fix all that, Gigliotti says, is with a scalpel, not a sledgehammer: put the right people in place behind the scenes, establish better ties with the community, come up with an appealing and distinct news format and promote the heck out of what you're doing.

However, visible changes have been minimal. WMAR's newscasts sport new lighting and a new slogan that promises "coverage, community, commitment." Some features have been added to the news, including remote broadcasts from area communities and reporter Sandra Pinckney's visits with prominent Maryland personalities.

"They're basically following what WBAL did with 'Live. Local. Late-breaking,' " says Goldstrom. "It's nothing that innovative or that makes them stand out."

So far, none of the station's anchors -- Stan Stovall, Mary Beth Marsden, Rudy Miller, Sandra Pinckney, Scott Garceau, Norm Lewis, Jaime Costello and Veronica Johnson -- has been bounced. Nor does Gigliotti expect a purge anytime soon.

"My marching orders were to begin the process of rebuilding the station. I was told, 'We would prefer, as a company, that you not go in and wipe out the whole population and start over again.' Not that I would anyway; that's not how I do things."

Gigliotti's competition wishes him, at least partially, well.

"Competition makes us all better, and best serves the interests of our viewers and advertisers," says WJZ Vice President and General Manager Marcellus Alexander. "It also makes Baltimore a better place for broadcast news."

Goal: Back on top

The goal for Gigliotti and his team is simple: reverse nearly three decades of misfortune and return Channel 2 to the dominance it once enjoyed as Baltimore's oldest and most successful television station.

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