Free program is displaced

TV/Radio column

Station: WMAR-TV moves `Lift Every Voice' to 5:30 a.m. in favor of paid programming.

Television and Radio Column

April 11, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

One evening late last month, the Rev. William C. Calhoun Sr. showed up at the York Road studios of WMAR-TV to tape a new segment of the religious program he has produced more or less weekly for the past 21 years.

A clutch of people, congregants from Calvary Baptist Church who were to attend the taping, greeted Calhoun outside, upset and confused. And that was how Calhoun found out for sure that "Lift Every Voice," offered free air time as an example of the station's dedication to the community, had been dislodged in favor of those preachers willing to pay for the privilege of appearing on Channel 2 at 7 a.m. Sundays.

"I got on the phone and learned I had had the last show the Sunday before. That was a shocker," recalls Calhoun, the pastor at Trinity Baptist Church on Druid Hill Avenue. "I guess money wins out."

This is not just happening at WMAR. Stations are now working harder than ever to prop up exaggerated profit margins for their parent companies as the advertising market sags.

"We need revenue-producing programming - whatever it is," says Drew Berry, the general manager of WMAR. "That's the reality. The station is a business. You try to balance business with other things we're doing in the community, and you hope somebody appreciates this."

On weekends in particular, the scheduling landscape of local television stations often resembles the pay-to-play approach of many commercial radio stations. Preachers with national followings offer sermons (and often 800 numbers seeking contributions), and hosts hawking products or services buy the time to appear on the air. This is true not only on the smaller local stations, such as WNUV and WUTB, but on major network affiliates as well.

Last fall on WJZ, for example, the Baltimore Ravens paid to broadcast programming every Saturday night to celebrate the football team. That's particularly troubling because it has involved two people from the CBS station's news staff. But officials at other stations generally haven't condemned the practice; instead, they note their own partnerships with the team.

On WBFF, a new 30-minute program called "Golden Opportunities" targeting viewers 50 and older, is set to air Sundays at 10 a.m. starting May 6. The host - Armond Budish, a Cleveland lawyer and writer who specializes in wills, trusts and Medicaid issues - says he purchased the weekly slot for a year from the station for $150,000.

For now, Budish subsidizes his show by selling commercials to some national advertisers, such as image-burnishing spots bought by General Electric. In Baltimore, he's also teaming up with a local law firm and a financial planning center for local segments. Budish and his new peers here may well offer useful counsel to senior citizens on nutrition, taxes, investments, medical developments and lifestyle questions. Yet it's also a soft-edged approach to the infomercial, an effort to try to transform some viewers into clients.

On the Scripps-Howard-owned WMAR, viewers have recently encountered "specials" on Baltimore-area bars and Maryland campuses. The bars and colleges happily doled out money to be featured on the station.

In another innovation, one weekday a month, WMAR sends its "remote" van to a car dealership. There, the van beams a live commercial from the site - giving an unusual feel to the ad that allows the station to justify an extra charge to the sponsor. (It can also conceivably tie up staff and equipment that could otherwise be used to cover news stories.)

Berry decided this year to reduce Calhoun's "Lift Every Voice" to once a month, and exile it to the 5:30 a.m. time slot on Sundays in favor of paid programming. Both men say Berry had earlier told Calhoun such a move was possible. But the station hadn't informed the minister yet of its verdict.

"Lift Every Voice" provided a window on different ministries throughout the region, with no solicitation of contributions. Now, WMAR can run a full hour of Robert Schuller, who preaches from his Crystal Cathedral in Southern California. There's also an hourlong show called "Grace and Glory," focusing on African-American churches that choose to pay for chunks of time. They don't ask for cash either, but they are interested in attracting new members.

"I'm not angry at the station," Calhoun says. "I know that TV is in the business of making more money. I'm just more concerned with the viewing public. To me, there are just some things that money can't buy."

WBFF morning ratings

WBFF's month-old morning program, with new anchors Harold Fisher and Jennifer DesMarais, is eking out what appear to be slender ratings numbers, which has caught the eye of officials at other stations. At the moment, figures from the folks at Nielsen estimate the morning show reaches roughly the same audience levels attracted by syndicated sitcoms that used to run weekdays from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. on Channel 45, such as "Caroline in the City," "Clueless" and "Home Improvement."

That's not much of a threat to WJZ's top-rated local morning program or NBC's popular "Today" show on WBAL. But the WBFF show is young yet, and it can take time to build audience support. The station's top executive noted that WBFF had not heavily promoted the show before its March debut to give the two anchors time to get comfortable with the program and each other. "We're pretty much on target," general manager Bill Fanshawe says. "Every week we've picked up ratings on it."

Questions? Comments? Ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@ baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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