WMAR takes ratings gamble

Shuffling: The station drops one news show and places its faith in `Jeopardy' to draw viewers to another.

August 27, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

In a gamble calculated to draw viewers to its low-rated news programs, WMAR, Channel 2, is dropping a half-hour of news from its evening schedule and moving the megapopular "Jeopardy!" to 5: 30 p.m.

The move, scheduled to take effect Sept. 6, means elimination of the station's 5: 30 p.m.-6 p.m. newscast. And it could also mean decreased viewership for "Jeopardy!" which, teamed with "Wheel of Fortune" at 7: 30, had proven one of the beleaguered station's few ratings successes.

But station management said they were willing to take the gamble to put a more popular program in front of the station's 6 p.m. newscast, with veteran anchors Stan Stovall and Mary Beth Marsden. In tandem with a revamped "People's Court" at 4 p.m., with Judge Jerry Sheindlin, husband of Judge Judy Sheindlin of "Judge Judy" fame, station programmers hope the "Jeopardy!" lead-in will help WMAR's chronically third-place ratings.

"People's Court should give us a stronger lead-in to our 5 o'clock news," said WMAR Station Manager Drew Berry. "Then, at 5: 30, perennial winner `Jeopardy!' we think is going to significantly improve our position. We're going to have some good lead-ins, finally."

"Extra," a newsmagazine that concentrates largely on stories from the world of entertainment, will move into the 7 p.m. weeknight slot.

At the same time WMAR is dropping its 5: 30 p.m. newscast, the station is adding a half-hour to the beginning of its morning show, which will start at 5 a.m. Noting that "morning news is a big moneymaker," Berry said the longer early-morning newscast should bring more revenue into the station and help it make inroads against the long-dominant morning team of Don Scott and Marty Bass on WJZ, Channel 13.

Although none of the station's on-air talent will lose jobs as a result of the moves, several will find themselves working in new slots. Todd McDermott, who had served as co-anchor of the 5: 30 p.m. news with Sandra Pinckney, will slide into the early-morning slot. Pinckney, meanwhile, will move to 5 p.m., where she'll share the desk with Stovall.

"We're not losing any people as a result of this," Berry said.

The moves come at a tumultuous time for the chronically underachieving WMAR. Two weeks ago, it announced a buyout package aimed at eliminating staff positions at the Scripps-Howard-owned station. Last week, morning weather forecaster Veronica Johnson left the station, saying she could not accept the "significant" pay cuts management wanted in her new contract. And in the past several weeks, several full- and part-time technicians have been laid off, according to employees there.

The ratings for WMAR's news programs have consistently rested at the bottom of the Baltimore news pile. For July, the 5 p.m. news had a rating of 4.1, compared with 7.5 for WBAL, Channel 11, and 8.6 for WJZ. At 6 p.m., the ratings were 4.1 for WMAR; 4.4 for the quickly ascending news on WNUV, Channel 54; 8.0 for WBAL; and 9.7 for WJZ. Each ratings point translates to roughly 10,000 viewers.

Possibly no local news program needs more ratings help than WMAR's early morning news. At 5: 30 a.m., the ratings were 1.1 for WMAR, 2.8 for WBAL and 4.6 for WJZ. At 6 a.m., they were 1.5 for WMAR, 4.8 for WBAL and 6.2 for WJZ.

Berry said he understood that the move of "Jeopardy!" and the elimination of the 5: 30 p.m. news could be seen as a sign of panic but said that was not the case.

"It's a slot that will give us a much better lead-in" to 6 p.m., he said, "and lead-in is king in this business. If you get a good lead-in, your news product will do really well."

Changes at WMAR

Old Schedule New Schedule*

5:30a.m. - 7a.m.: Morning news 5a.m.-7a.m.: Morning news with

Jamie Costello and Janet Roach Todd McDermott and Janet Roach

5p.m. -5:30p.m.: News with Stan 5p.m. -5:30p.m.: News with Sandra

Stovall and Mary Beth Marsden Pinckney and Stan Stovall

5:30p.m.-6p.m.: News with Sandra 5:30p.m.-6p.m.: "Jeopardy!"

Pinckney and Todd McDermott

6p.m.-6:30p.m.: News with Stan 6p.m.-6:30p.m.: News with Stan

Stovall and Mary Beth Marsden Stovall and Mary Beth Masden

* (as of 9/6)

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