News anchor Harris and forecaster Pinson are leaving WBFF-TV

February 06, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

WBFF-TV is about to lose two primary news presenters who acknowledge qualms about the new direction of the station's owners.

Anchor Tony Harris, 43, is scheduled next month to become a main anchor at WGCL, the CBS affiliate in Atlanta. Weather forecaster Lori Pinson is leaving the station in the near future.

The two are well-regarded by colleagues and viewers, who can also see them weeknights at 6:30 p.m. on sister station WNUV-TV.

Harris brought a quick, dry wit and an unusual background to the Fox affiliate, which he joined seven years ago. He had worked as a correspondent for Entertainment Tonight, on HBO and on a syndicated television news magazine.

In Baltimore, Harris also brought his deadpan wit to a job as a pre-game host for Ravens football broadcasts.

In an interview, Harris says he decided to leave Baltimore, his hometown, for a chance to do things in Atlanta, the nation's ninth largest market (Baltimore is 24th).

"I'm just tickled to death that they sought me out," Harris says of his new employer. "The one thing I have tried to do is be myself. You can go someplace where the handlers get control of you - the consultants get hold of you - and none of it feels natural."

He says the departure of WBFF co-anchor Deborah Weiner last winter had led to "a year of transition - to figure out where we fit in here" as the news is being reconsidered by owner Sinclair Broadcast Group.

In its studios at corporate headquarters, Sinclair is building a centralized newscast that blends standard content with local stories from some of the 62 stations the company owns and runs.

Now Harris and Jane Robelot, a former CBS News morning show host, are to try to spark the tepid fortunes of the Atlanta station. Harris' contract allowed him to leave for a top-sized market.

"We're building a station, essentially," Robelot says. "Tony brings in a great deal of credibility and experience, which is wonderful."

"Tony did a great job for us the last seven years," says William Fanshawe, general manager for WBFF and WNUV. "He's a hot talent."

Station officials also confirmed Pinson's imminent departure, but would give no details. No final date has been announced. Pinson brought an unusually understated style to a role that often seems to demand flamboyance. She was named "Broadcaster of the Year" - a national recognition - from the National Weather Association, a forecasters' group. And she was a tireless participant in community and educational activities, peers said.

Pinson said she was tending to a close relative who had recently been diagnosed with cancer, but also offered this comment: "I was informed that Fox 45 is taking a new and untraditional approach to forecasting weather, originating from Beaver Dam Road" - a reference to Sinclair studios in Baltimore County. She did not elaborate further.

A few forecasters at Sinclair's "Weather Central" are now responsible for providing weather reports for stations in scattered parts of the country. Those reports are taped, which became evident when the tape of the weather report did not play Monday evening.

Mary Ellen Pann, another former WBFF weather forecaster, also left the station after the introduction of the new system.

Taken with the loss of Weiner, WBFF will be almost entirely recasting the most visible part of its news team. "Sometimes change presents opportunities for other people," Fanshawe said. "Fortunately for us, we have the bench strength to work through it."

After Weiner left, reporter and anchor Jennifer Gilbert stepped smoothly into the main nightly newscast anchor's seat. Fanshawe said a search would review external and internal candidates for the new job, but that substitute anchor Craig Demchak would be given strong consideration.

"They're really a big part of that operation," Weiner says of her former colleagues Pinson and Harris. "But there are still some really talented people at [Fox] 45 - good people."

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