2 stations' newscasts might see new looks

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Others weigh in on what to change

January 08, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

What would you do if you were given the job of creating a newscast? What stories would you tell? Would your news program include more scrutiny of the environment or the economy? Would you direct more attention to foreign affairs or traffic?

What would you do?

Two Baltimore stations have the opportunity to answer just that question. WBFF-TV, the Fox affiliate that has the region's sole 10 p.m. newscast, intends to join the crowded and noisy competition at 11 p.m. as well. WMAR's search for a news director could land someone who would reconceive that station's modestly rated news shows.

WBFF's new broadcast is to be a fast-paced half-hour, with quick accounts of local and national developments, says William Fanshawe, the station's general manager. The station's goal is to attract more advertising dollars in both time slots.

Fanshawe argues that the station will be able to set higher rates for commercials for its current nightly newscast if its new, later program drains viewers from the top-rated shows at 11 p.m. In this scenario, the 10 p.m. show would then claim a relatively larger audience size.

This all relies on theories of relativity that are a bit beyond the comprehension of those of us who didn't major in quantum physics. But he seems very excited about it.

Fanshawe intends to do nothing to tamper with the quality of WBFF's current show, which sets a more deliberate pace than its later competitors. The new show will likely feature different anchors but rebroadcast stories that ran earlier that day on the station. It would also draw upon some segments from News Central, the clearinghouse set up last year at Sinclair corporate headquarters to generate and distribute stories and weather reports for its stations.

Sinclair is also spending what Fanshawe says is multimillion dollars to renovate and upgrade equipment and studios for WBFF and sister station WNUV-TV on Television Hill. He promises that WBFF's 11 p.m. show will have more stories in 30 minutes than either WBAL-TV or WJZ-TV offers in a 35-minute newscast each night.

"They'll be local stories, shorter and hard-hitting," Fanshawe says with pride.

Over at WMAR-TV, the resignation last week after two years of news director Staci Feger-Childers presents an opportunity to rethink the substance of what goes on the air during its news programs.

Though there have been glimmers of hopeful news in the most recent ratings period, the station's viewership nonetheless remains mired at unimpressive levels. According to Nielsen Media Research, the station's audience has been growing slightly older, even as it has been growing slightly larger. In the television world, the tyranny of youth is fairly absolute.

"We are happy with the overall gains," says WMAR general manager Drew Berry. "The demographic gains will come later."

Most news professionals see little difference between the overall quality of the reporting on WMAR and the reporting on its rivals. But the station hasn't seemed to acquire true traction.

I canvassed the opinions of several Marylanders who pay close attention to television news from different standpoints, to learn how they would shape the news differently were they to be given control of a station.

"One of the things I would like to exclude are these drug--related murders," says 1st Mariner Bancorp's Edwin F. Hale Sr., an advertiser on several Baltimore stations. "You can't ignore it, but I would not feature it up front, every night." A past sponsor of WMAR's defunct "Hometown Heroes" segments, Hale's bank is currently paying for spots on WJZ recognizing the work of Maryland businesses that are creating jobs and performing valuable community work.

"We do have a gritty edge to the city," Hale says. "But some of us are doing good things and are trying to make Maryland a better place to live." Enterprising reporters should be able find such stories on their own, without the sponsorship of 1st Mariner or anyone else.

A. Robert Kaufman, a Baltimore-based Marxist activist who frequently criticizes the media, urges news teams to "wrestle with the problems besetting the city." Emphasizing the need for media outlets to be freed from corporate interests, Kaufman calls for a continued look at the deteriorating ecology of the world and the region.

And reporters should find who's to blame for the gaps between the rich and poor, he argues. "We have the ability to end the poverty," Kaufman says. "In whose interest is it to keep things the way they are?"

Mark S. Miller, the news director for WBAL-AM radio, says any modern television station needs a helicopter and high-technology weather-forecasting equipment to be competitive. But he thinks any newscast needs a defining feature - much like WBFF's Cover Story segment, which sets the station apart by giving reporters 5 to 8 minutes to examine a topic in some depth.

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