WBFF vows to keep news

TV/Radio Column

September 13, 2000|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

David Smith, goes the word around town, is always worth a conversation - if not for the information gleaned then for the fun of it all.

The colorful (read: often charming, often controversial and often profane) CEO of the Sinclair Broadcasting Group heads a Baltimore County company that owns or runs more than 60 stations in 40 markets. Yet Smith says he doesn't watch much television, saying he prefers to spend his evenings developing pictures in his darkroom at home.

Even if he professes not to watch the news much, however, he sure knows how to make it. In an interview on Monday, Smith promised that the Sinclair flagship WBFF (Channel 45) 10 o'clock news would stay on the air.

That may seem like no story at all; after all, no change is no news, right?

But just last month, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., the parent company of Fox, arranged to purchase WUTB (Channel 24) from Chris-Craft, along with nine other stations. And the Aussie media baron is considered likely to yank Fox TV programming from WBFF for his own station.

The loss of Fox programming would strip the station of a strong name brand and possibly a sizeable segment of its viewing audience. As a result, for many who work locally in the television business, the news show's fate had been in doubt. In the ensuing uncertainty, some WBFF staffers were circulating resumes at a furious clip, according to an executive at a rival station.

But Smith said his station will continue to offer the 10 o'clock news whether or not Fox programs remain on Channel 45. "I don't know what the show would do with or without the lead-in," he said. "It's a great newscast."

Baltimore-area viewers as well as WBFF staffers should be heartened by that development. "I haven't gotten anything official, but that's the word that's come down to me," said news director Joseph DeFeo.

Reporters and news executives at other stations often go out of their way to praise the down-the-middle approach of the newscast, which isn't your typical Fox affiliate's emphasis on car crashes and shoot-outs. In separate interviews, Baltimore television journalists singled out DeFeo, anchor Deborah Weiner, assistant news director Scott Livingston, and anchor/reporter Jennifer Gilbert for particular praise.

"I think they get a lot of respect," said Jayne Miller, an investigative reporter for WBAL-TV (Channel 11). "Considering the content of a lot of (Fox) programming, their newscast is almost understated."

As people at the other stations point out, WBFF's news team has fewer obligations constraining it: unlike WBAL, WJZ (Channel 13) or WMAR (Channel 2), it does not produce a morning news show or extensive afternoon programs. Instead, the WBFF news team airs a 30-minute 6:30 p.m. newscast on WNUV, the second Sinclair-run station in town, as well as the 10 o'clock show.

But the more leisurely pace of the hour-long show, in comparison to the half-hour offered by the other three local evening news programs, allows more in-depth reporting. Their daily "cover story" routinely dedicates five minutes or more to a single story, an unusually long time.

"It gives us breathing room in stories," Weiner said. "When you think of local TV news, that's the last thing that you think about. It's typically a breathless story in search of substance. But how many shootings, fires and crimes can you cover before you say, `There's got to be other stories out there'?"

Rukeyser ruckus

Financial news commentator Louis Rukeyser of MPT's famed "Wall Street Week" has agreed to be the host of several special programs about this fall's presidential elections on CNBC, the cable news financial network. In a press release, CNBC touted the development as a union of "the recognized global leader in business news" (that would be CNBC) and "the country's most popular economic and financial commentator" (Lou).

Should make for good viewing for econophiles. But it does raise the question: what does Rukeyser, a former Sun reporter, really think about his new cable partner?

A request by ABC News' "Nightline" to interview Rukeyser about the cable financial news outlets like CNBC for a recent program sparked a less-than-enthusiastic response. Rukeyser's assistant, Rebecca Clear, sent a full-page riposte obtained by the New York Post. Her memo to "Nightline" read, in part:

"Just asking him to comment about cable-TV ticker shows with infinitesimal audiences compared to the ones he has attracted for 30 years straight (becoming, in the process, the longest-running prime-time host in the history of American television), and continues to attract every week, would be a serious distortion of the realities of modern financial journalism - as well as a significant under-use of his necessarily rare availability for outside interviews."

An ABC News spokeswoman said the network was "chagrined" that the private correspondence had become public. No word from Rukeyser, who is out of the country.

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