Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

WJZ gives up an hour of evening news to air Md. gubernatorial debate

In what it describes as an effort to better serve voters, WJZ-TV will air tonight’s debate among seven Democratic candidates for governor at 6 p.m., a time period normally filled with an early-evening, station-produced newscast.

The debate will run from 6 to 7:15 p.m., followed by 15 minutes of local news, and then the “CBS Evening News” from 7:30 to 8.

The two previous TV debates among Democratic candidates aired at 7 p.m.

“It is different for us,” K.C. Robertson, a spokesman for the station, said of 6 p.m. start. “In recent memory, yes, it is the first time. It’s an effort to better serve the community.”

The thinking is that there will be a larger audience of viewers interested in the news and engaged with current affairs during that news hour, and this is a way to expose the candidates to them.

Programming from 5 to 8 p.m. is an important and sometimes complicated part of a local station’s strategy.

Some stations go with syndicated fare as opposed to locally-produced news during part of that time, as WBFF does with back to back episodes of “Family Feud” from 6 to 7 p.m.

With the start of prime time at 8 p.m., local affiliates have far less latitude as they are contractually committed to carrying a certain amount of what the network offers.

In addition to WJZ, the debate is presented by The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore’s Schaefer Center for Public Policy.

The candidates in tonight’s debate are: Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker III, former Montgomery County councilwoman Valerie Ervin, former NAACP CEO Ben Jealous, state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno, attorney Jim Shea, tech entrepreneur Alec Ross and Krish Vignarajah, former policy director for First Lady Michelle Obama.

The moderators are: Vic Carter, WJZ anchorman; Ann Cotten, director of the Schaefer Center, and Andrew A. Green, editorial page editor for The Sun.

The debate was taped earlier today at the University of Baltimore.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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