'BFF's affiliation not in jeopardy

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Money: When Fox News started demanding dollars for its news footage, Channel 45's parent company said thanks, but no thanks.

January 24, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Newscasts on WBFF, Baltimore's self-styled Fox 45, no longer include footage or stories from Fox News.

After a dispute over money, Sinclair Broadcast Group (WBFF's parent company), decided not to pay for stories or video provided by Fox News. So, since Jan. 1, the Baltimore station and Sinclair's 14 other Fox affiliates with news shows have depended on CNN for out-of-town footage.

The shift surprised many people who work in local television. "It's very unusual for an affiliate not to carry the news footage of that affiliate's network," said Princell Hair, news director for NBC affiliate WBAL (Channel 11). "I would think that Fox is concerned."

Fox News Edge, the official name of the service, provides a clearinghouse for footage and stories from the Fox staffers and from affiliated stations all over the country. The mix ensures that local stations can provide viewers with national and international news. In exchange, the local stations share their own stories with Fox News Edge.

Fox News officials declined repeated requests for comment, deflecting them to Sinclair and to their corporate owner, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. A senior spokesman for News Corp., a global concern worth $38 billion, had no comment.

Patrick J. Talamantes, Sinclair's chief financial officer, says Fox News Edge had previously traded footage with WBFF without charge. "We never had a formal contract," Talamantes says.

As of Jan. 1, however, Fox demanded to be paid for the service. And Sinclair decided to pass, as the company was already paying for CNN's service. "We discussed it with them extensively and got to the point where we couldn't come to terms with Fox," Talamantes says. "It's really about money."

News Director Joe DeFeo dismissed concerns about the quality of the newscast being affected by the change. He and other local news executives say they're being charged comparably modest fees by Fox News competitor CNN, which provides footage for all four local channels.

But it's hard to believe it won't prove more difficult for WBFF producers to put together the station's distinctive hour-long newscast without Fox News Edge's well-produced packages. And it can be jarring to hear CNN taglines at the end of stories aired on what is touted as a Fox News station.

Talamantes took pains to say that the disagreement will not affect Sinclair's future negotiations over its affiliation with the network. And once News Corp. completes purchase of Chris-Craft, which owns WUTB (Channel 24), it would have another possible home for Fox programming.

"It is a complete sidebar in the relationship," Talamantes says. "Fox affiliation agreements don't require us to take news."

Good news vs. bad news

On Jan. 9, a seventh grader at Franklin Middle School in Reisterstown told administrators he had kept small vials of flammable household chemicals in his locker so he could sell them as the ingredients for bombs.

Students taking part in after-school activities were evacuated late that afternoon; the 12-year-old was later charged with the felony count of possession of an explosive or incendiary device.

All the local news stations carried prominent stories about the incident, which was unquestionably newsworthy. But Scott Goldstein, a senior at nearby Franklin High School, argues the coverage provided a distorted picture. The 17-year-old editor of the Frank- lin Gazette was particularly struck by the presence of WBAL's news helicopter hovering over the scene.

An excerpt follows of a column Goldstein wrote for the Gazette:

"It is not unlikely that the young man who made the threat is nothing more than a confused adolescent who was reaching out, in pathetic fashion, for a little attention. The media gladly jumped at the young man's offer, giving in to his desires without a second thought.

"Those people who decide what stories will be broadcast every night don't stop to think of what kind of damage they may be doing to a community. By giving such children the attention they so badly crave in a situation such as this, more people are likely to make such dangerous attempts for public exposure.

"Just one night after the `bomb scare' incident occurred, I was proud to attend Franklin Middle School's Winter Concert. Packed to capacity inside the Franklin High School auditorium, hundreds of parents, teachers, and various community members showed their support for an outstanding group of student musicians. Oddly enough, not one news crew was to be found on the premises. No helicopters circled the grounds and none of the stations bothered to mention the event."

In the wake of school shootings in Colorado, Kentucky and elsewhere, reporters understandably take such incidents seriously. How best to translate that concern into responsible stories, however, is less clear.

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