INDEPENDENTS' DAY Channels 45 and 54 have grown quickly. Can they keep it up?


Bruce Lumpkin clutches a cherished document: a 12-page plan he's convinced will one day hoist Channel 45 to the top of the ratings charts.

The $5 million master plan -- what Channel 45's general manager speaks of as a "bible" -- calls for a 35-member news force to deliver Baltimore's first 10 o'clock news show. It calls for a fleet of news cars, pricey "live trucks" for reporting from the field, expensive microwave dishes to capture remote feeds, and renovation of a 43,000-square-foot building at the bottom of Baltimore's Television Hill to serve as the station's new headquarters.

It's big-time stuff for a UHF station that for two decades struggled against anonymity, before being buoyed by its 1986 association with the Fox Network, purveyors of "The Simpsons," "Married . . . with Children," "In Living Color," "America's Most Wanted," and other glitzy, controversial prime-time programming.

The economy may be in a downturn that is causing other local media organizations to retrench and to scratch for advertising dollars. But WBFF and Baltimore's other major independent UHF station, WNUV Channel 54, are in the mood for expansion. Both are taking risks, roughing their way through a difficult period in hopes of building market share.

"These are exciting television times," insists the ebullient Joseph Koff, general manager at 1 1/2 -year-old WNUV, which is grabbing viewers by running movie marathons and reruns of such popular shows as "Alf," "Perfect Strangers" and "Hunter." In the early 1990s, Baltimore's two independents are giving the three local network affiliates, WBAL, WJZ and WMAR, a run for their money, Mr. Koff argues.

The Big Three affiliates still dominate 66 percent of the market in terms of viewers, based on Nielsen ratings for October.

But the two large independents -- once representing a small fraction of viewership -- have climbed to a combined market share of about 11 percent. The remaining shares are taken up by cable offerings, Washington-based stations, public television, and a local Home Shopping Network station.

What's more, the independents are reaching for the Big Three's prime-time audience. The latest Nielsen ratings, for instance, show that "The Simpsons" is drawing a respectable number of viewers to WBFF even though it is programmed against "The Cosby Show," a highly popular comedy on local NBC-affiliate WMAR. In October, Nielsen estimates that 11 percent of Baltimore-area households with televisions were tuned to "The Simpsons" on WBFF, compared to 32 percent for "Cosby."

At WBFF's studios, cardboard bins filled with some 700 videotapes tell part of the story of the expectations raised for Fox-45. The tapes, which have arrived since August, are electronic resumes from those aspiring to become news reporters or anchors for the station. Mr. Lumpkin says that among them are a few well-known personalities now working for the local Big Three.

With their lower overhead, lower advertising rates and aggressive sales techniques, Baltimore's independents are making a serious pitch for the traditional advertising dollars once dealt almost solely to network affiliates WBAL, WJZ and WMAR. These days, with budgets tight, advertisers are more interested in an economic TV buy that delivers viewers on a popular show than the prestige of having their commercial on a major network, Mr. Koff says.

"Would you rather be in the middle of a PGA golf event, which is high status in the affiliate's mind, or in the middle of a movie, with a guaranteed audience every week that likes to buy retail?" asks Mr. Koff.

To be sure, Baltimore's three major network affiliates are surrendering no ground to the independents. Neither do they dismiss the independents as also-rans.

Any advertising medium is a potential threat, says Arnold Kleiner, general manager at WMAR. "Personally, I look at chalk on sidewalks and matchbook covers as a challenge to me. I think everything that's out there is vying for the same piece of pie," he says.

While predicting that WBFF's news operation will be a commercial success, Mr. Kleiner and WJZ general manager Marcellus Alexander believe it will draw more viewers to the 10 p.m. time slot. At WBAL-TV, station manager Joseph Heston sees such programming alternatives as catering to relatively narrow "niche" markets.

"There is erosion. But in delivering a huge audience, you're still talking about a network affiliate," Mr. Heston says.

For its part, WBFF says it offers advertisers the best of both worlds: the relative economy of an independent's ad pricing and the tie-in with the trendy Fox network, which caters to young people with pop culture tastes and appetites for fast food, soft drinks, sporty cars and other products targeted to youth.

WBFF says news will give the station the credibility to attract those blue-chip advertisers -- including image-conscious banks, brokerage houses, and oil companies -- who will be associated only with a station with a full-blown news operation.

"We're a new breed of broadcaster -- a kind of hybrid," says Michael Schroeder, WBFF's program and promotion manager. "With Fox, we have the strength of being a network affiliate yet we also have our independence. We're a kind of hybrid: an 'indefilliate,' or a 'affilident,' or whatever you want to call it."

WNUV's Mr. Koff, a note of disdain in his voice, calls rival WBFF a "dependent station." He vows that WNUV will remain solely independent.

"We pray nightly for the success of the Fox Network," says Mr. Koff, a serious tone to his voice. He allows that by building on its affiliation with Fox, WBFF has a better shot than WNUV at breaking into Baltimore's top three stations in terms of viewers. But as WBFF makes itself more like a traditional network affiliate, its costs will inevitably rise, Mr. Koff says.

In point of fact, the Fox Network (in the manner of the major networks) pays WBFF to carry such popular shows as "The Simpsons." But the sum paid Fox-45 is only about $200,000 a year, considerably less on an hour-to-hour basis than Baltimore's major affiliates get from their networks, Mr. Lumpkin says.

And in exchange for such prime-time programs, WBFF sacrifices to Fox fully eight minutes per hour devoted to commercials. The more time it gives up to Fox, the more it will wind up charging for commercials during Fox hours, Mr. Koff predicts.

Mr. Koff doesn't argue that WBFF's strategy will fail financially. // But he believes WNUV will benefit as WBFF becomes more and more like traditional network affiliates.

Meanwhile, WNUV should strengthen its position as the low-cost leader for advertising, Mr. Koff predicts. At the same time, local competition for syndicated movie and rerun material should decline, keeping WNUV's program costs under control.

"As they become more and more like the Big Three, our pricing advantage will increase," contends Andrew Banks, co-owner of ABRY Communications Inc., the Boston-based entrepreneurial enterprise that bought WNUV in March 1989.

Mr. Banks estimates that WNUV's advertisers now pay 35 percent less than they'd pay for a comparable commercial produced or run by one of the Big Three. WBFF's advertisers get 25 percent off comparable rates, he adds.

WNUV is fashioning itself as the entertainment-oriented, movie network in town. Mr. Banks says he sees no point in duplicating what the networks do well: game shows, soap operas and news programs among them.

WNUV runs 140 movies a month and has assembled a movie library of 4,000 features. Scheduled for a weekend in early December, for instance, is a themed marathon including "Oklahoma," "South Pacific" and "Fiddler on the Roof." It also relies heavily on syndicated fare, including the still-popular "Alf" about an alien from the Planet Melmac, dropped as an NBC network show this year.

Meanwhile, WBFF is banking that the cash it's spending on news will pay off.

It plans to offer a newscast at 10 o'clock each night, beginning in May. It's moving into new quarters -- originally a Dr Pepper bottling plant and later a lighting warehouse -- which offers more than three times the space to stretch out. And its nationwide search has led to the hiring of newsman Mark Pimentel, who won awards for coverage of Hurricane Hugo while working for a TV station in Charleston, S.C.

Besides catering to well-heeled advertisers, WBFF is seeking to appeal to viewers with early bedtimes. "We intend to be the first and, in all probability the only prime-time newscast in the marketplace," says David Smith, president of Sinclair Broadcast Group, owner of WBFF and stations in four other U.S. cities.

"We're becoming a much earlier-to-bed, earlier-to-rise society," says Mr. Smith.

The news production operation and new building follow WBFF's $2 million investment to improve the quality of its once-fuzzy signal. Some people see symbolism in the site WBFF selected for construction of its gigantic new broadcast tower, next to the three-sided tower on Television Hill used to transmit signals for the major network affiliates. WBFF's tower is 210 feet higher than what's known as "the candelabra."

Big-league transmission is also a reality for WNUV. ABRY Communications last year put more than $2.5 million into replacement of the station's transmitter and antenna and the new system has three times the signal strength of the old.

With the new technology, executives at both of Baltimore's independent stations contend the quality of the broadcasts of UHF, or ultrahigh frequency, stations is now roughly in parity with the market-leader VHF, or very high frequency stations. The distinction between UHF and VHF has also been blurred by cable with its equally sharp picture quality.

The brave new world of Baltimore television, which also includes independent Channel 24, devoted mainly to the Florida-based Home Shopping Network, a broadcast retailer, and a number of national cable TV offerings, was unthinkable to many observers in 1970 when WBFF was founded by Julian Sinclair Smith, now 70 and still active in the business.

Mr. Smith, an electrical engineer with a background in the aerospace industry and a fascination for technical gadgetry, saw the potential for UHF broadcasting, even as WBFF struggled against the image of itself as a fuzzy-picture, second-tier station that offered second-rate reruns.

The hurly-burly world of television deregulation during the Reagan administration led to the creation of more than 200 independent stations. The sudden increase in new stations brought bidding wars for syndicated programming and increased competition for ad revenues. The situation ultimately resulted in a business shakeout in the late 1980s, which led to widespread changes in ownership. It was in this environment that WNUV was sold.

Led by Mr. Banks and partner Royce Yudkoff, who had worked together at the same Boston-based investment firm and founded ABRY Communications in late 1988, ABRY bought the station from Sam Kravetz and a group of Baltimore businessmen last year for $20 million. WNUV was to be the flagship in a string of five independent stations throughout the U.S. bought by ABRY.

The big step for WBFF -- almost a reincarnation -- was to be its affiliation with Fox Network, owned by Australian Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. With 134 affiliates throughout the U.S., most of them UHF stations, Fox now reaches about 91 percent of U.S. households and offers network programming for general audiences five nights a week, and for children on Saturday morning.

It's an unusual time for Baltimore's two big independents to be taking risks and investing large sums of capital. Throughout the nation, media organizations, electronic and print, have been retrenching in recent months.

Part of the problem is that many stations are now heavily leveraged and under severe pressure to produce more ad revenue in a market reluctant to pay more, says William Porter, a senior president at Richardson, Myers & Donofrio, the Baltimore-based advertising agency.

"This is the worst advertising environment in 20 years -- no one has escaped," says Kenneth Berents, who tracks media organizations for Alex. Brown & Sons in Baltimore. "The problem is that nobody knows, one, if we've reached bottom or, two, when the upturn will occur. If you're a marginal media player, you may not be around in a year or two."

Mr. Berents is predicting the bankruptcy of a number of UHF stations throughout the country in the near-term, especially highly leveraged players that are new to their markets. But he acknowledges that some UHF players, especially those who are established, not highly leveraged, and well managed, may flourish in the aftermath of this period.

"Those that have very strong niches, low programming costs and aggressively market for advertising could prosper," he predicts.

Baltimore's independents are willing to gamble, realizing that the stakes are high. If WNUV goofs in the selection of syndicated material, it could lose viewers and hence, advertisers. At the same time, WBFF risks the loss of capital and credibility that could come with a failed news operation.

"We're prepared to have it cost us money in the next few years," Mr. Lumpkin says of the 10 o'clock news show, a operation he expects to cost $1.5 million to $2 million a year.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad