As seasons turn and stomachs churn during the May television sweeps period, hyper-friendly WJZ is preparing to claim a harder edge for its newscasts - and make changes in its news team.
In promotional spots scheduled to start this weekend, the channel that has profitably traded on its anchors as personalities for decades will now advertise itself as "Baltimore's News Station."
That might not seem like a seismic shift: Until recently, WJZ (Channel 13) has labeled itself "Baltimore's Favorite News Station" and "Baltimore's Favorite Station."
But the change reflects a determined effort by WJZ to bolster its ratings - and compete with WBAL-TV (Channel 11), the region's most-watched news station - by promoting itself as a credible source for news. To do that, news professionals say, WJZ must partially relinquish its hold on the feel of its personality-driven newscasts.
"To give up that brand after that long a time is a big deal," says Barry Nash, a Dallas-based television consultant who has worked for two of WJZ's competitors in Baltimore. "What they're trying to do is brand it a little harder - to make it a little bit more content-driven."
Norman Hecht Research, the consulting firm brought in by WJZ's parent company, CBS, found that viewers liked the station's primary anchors - Vic Carter, Denise Koch, Kai Jackson and Sally Thorner. But the station wasn't respected as a serious source for current events, and newcomers to the region were significantly more likely to watch WBAL, the firm's research showed.
There already appears to be one casualty. Though WJZ executives won't confirm the plan, they intend to drop the colorful John Buren as sports director, despite having signed him to a long-term contract just last year, according to two news professionals knowledgeable about the decision. Former WBAL sports anchor Mark Viviano, who left Baltimore for the soon-to-be-defunct CNN/SI cable channel, is being sought as a replacement for Buren, who has been with WJZ for 16 years. WJZ general manager Jay Newman had no comment on the moves.
WJZ remains highly profitable, last year recording the most advertising revenue of any local channel. But ratings for most of its news programs have declined. Viewership of its 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. newscasts, for example, dropped by more than 40 percent from January 1993 to January 2002. WMAR's ratings have fallen even more severely. By contrast, despite the rapid growth of cable, WBAL managed to maintain ratings almost identical to those it had a decade ago, enabling it to leapfrog from third to first in Baltimore.
WJZ's Newman betrays no frustration, saying the new motto marks only a cosmetic change. "I don't think we're shifting how we present the news," he says. "We're shifting how we are promoting the news."
Over the past year, however, he and news director Gail Bending have encouraged producers to foster a greater sense of urgency within newscasts. Logos promising "breaking news" and "exclusives" have frequently adorned coverage of even incremental advances in ongoing news stories.
Now, says Donna Bertling, the station's promotions director, WJZ wants people to think of it as a station of record for local news. "We've solidified the core brand," she says. "The goal now is to gain credit for good news coverage."
Meanwhile, WMAR unveiled its new look on Monday night, and it is visually arresting. The stories were more artfully framed than usual, there were more numerous live shots, and the graphics were crisp.
The real question is what happens after the novelty of the packaging wears off. WMAR's general manager, Drew Berry, says his station's revamped news approach will debut tomorrow night, with the beginning of the May ratings period. The ABC affiliate intends to produce more investigative or consumer reporting.
"Across the country, viewers complain that there's too much crime and non-relevant stories on the newscasts," Berry says. "They are right, and we're just as guilty as anyone else."
Referring to the changes that will first appear tomorrow night, he says, "We can't keep doing the same thing. We have to give people a reason to watch."
Louis Rukeyser's Wall Street - Louis Rukeyser's new show - has drawn record figures for cable channel CNBC. Transplanted from Maryland Public Television to a slightly jazzier set in Fort Lee, N.J., Rukeyser drew an average audience of 609,000 people last Friday - more viewers than any other prime-time program on CNBC this season.
Several dozen public television stations broadcast the free feed from CNBC over the weekend, including PBS affiliates in major markets, such as WNET in New York, KOCE in Southern California, WTTW in Chicago, and WHUT in Washington. The exact number is not known, says Susan Soberman, a spokeswoman for WLIW, a Long Island station that presents the show for public stations.
The show's early success is particularly notable because PBS President Pat Mitchell wrote to all PBS affiliates advising them against broadcasting the Rukeyser show. As reported by the Miami Herald, Mitchell said Rukeyser had unfairly misrepresented the context of his departure from the MPT-produced Wall Street Week.
MPT fired Rukeyser after he announced on his March 29 show that he had been ambushed by proposed changes to the program. On that night, he drew about 1.52 million viewers. Just 935,000 watched his replacements on PBS last Friday.
MPT plans a June launch for the new Wall Street Week With Fortune, relying on Geoffrey Colvin, the magazine's editorial director as a chief anchor.
Questions? Comments? David Folkenflik can be reached at david.folkenflik@ baltsun.com or at 410-332-6923.