For a price, `Just B TV' spotlights advertisers

TV/RADIO COLUMN

October 22, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

There's a new perky television magazine show trying to focus attention on the good side of Baltimore. It's called Just B TV, and it is so relentlessly upbeat that it summons Lou Grant's response to Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show: "You know what? You've got spunk." Pause. "I hate spunk!"

Yet, at first glance, you'd like to credit the impulse of the show's creators, Erin Knapp and Kimberlee Suerth. Baltimore television news coverage so reflexively depicts the city as a disaster zone that it gives viewers a distorted sense of everyday life here.

Seemingly stepping into that void comes Just B TV, with stories narrated by Knapp, Suerth and Kirk McEwen of WIYY (97.9 FM) on local festivities, entertainers and entrepreneurs around the city. WBFF-TV broadcasts the program Sundays at 11:30 a.m.

"Our main goal is to get people excited about the community," says Knapp. This would be, she says, a chance to remedy Baltimore's image.

There is a catch, however. While the show has commercial sponsors, currently 1st Mariner Bank and the Maryland Jockey Club, it is promising exposure to those willing to pay to be featured on future episodes.

"Idealistically, that's something we would rather not do that way," says Knapp. "So many people have great stories. We'd love to cover them all." As 1st Mariner chairman Edwin F. Hale Sr. owns the Baltimore Blast, his firm's sponsorship "just moves [the Blast] up a notch" in importance in coverage offered by John Curry, a former sports producer and reporter for WMAR-TV.

One such pitch, obtained by The Sun, promises a major city cultural institution valuable product placement. "By marketing you will receive increased sales, visibility, traffic and name recognition."

For just $1,200, the institution could sponsor one of the weekly episodes, guaranteeing a segment of nearly three to four minutes, with shots of the group's gift shop, desired attraction and its top official. For an 11-week commitment of about $1,400, the group could buy a 30-second ad on each episode, with "product or service ... showcased on camera as hosts interview people."

Let's be clear about what Just B TV doesn't do. It does not explicitly claim to be a WBFF news show. Its "interviewers" are not members of the station's news staff, and they use different microphones with a separate, distinctive logo. At the beginning of each show, WBFF broadcasts a disclosure that it is a "paid program" - that is, effectively a 30-minute advertisement.

On the air, however, Just B TV looks much like a real local television show. But it's not. You'd have a hard time separating the celebration of Baltimore from the desired selling of Baltimore.

One of the first installments of Just B TV featured the National Aquarium giving a tour of the seahorses and the new SharkQuest exhibit. "It definitely portrayed the aquarium in a positive light, says Dawn Jennings, assistant manager of public relations. "If people hadn't heard of the aquarium, they definitely would have been enticed to come visit."

Knapp says early subjects of profiles on the show were not charged. Now, however, she says she and her partner need to cover their costs. So: Buyer beware. And, in this case, remember that every Baltimorean is being seen as a buyer.

Claim under fire

WBAL-TV reporter John Sherman was intrigued by the heavy police presence at a Sunday morning news conference to announce the capture of a suspect believed to have held up a priest and two workers at a Northeast Baltimore church.

His curiosity led to a story on the station's 11 p.m. newscast Monday, however, that appears to have relied on a single anecdote that is under fire.

Sherman reported, accurately, that police had devoted extra officers to pursue the case. Had resources been diverted from more serious crimes? Sherman asked. An unnamed woman who was the widow of a recent shooting victim told him "she hasn't gotten even a phone call from the police."

But Kevin Enright, staff director for Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Clark, says that's untrue. Police have spoken at least four times with the widow of Tracy Austin, slain last week, two or three times with his sister, and once with an uncle, he says. "We have voluminous notes and reports on this case," Enright says, "and it's advancing."

In addition, police officials say they couldn't rebut the woman's claim because Sherman never told them which homicide victim he was referring to. "I asked, and he never told me," says police communications director Matt Jablow, a former reporter and anchor at WBAL-TV who fielded Sherman's calls Monday.

Police officials were further angered that the station reported no official response from the department. Jablow offered a statement to Sherman Monday night since Clark was in Philadelphia. It was not relayed to viewers. Instead, anchor Marianne Bannister closed the story this way:

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