TONIGHT'S FINAL broadcast of WJZ's "Evening" magazine show at 7:30 on Channel 13 is not just the end of a television show, it's the sad end of an era in Baltimore television.
WJZ rose to its position of dominance in the ratings on the back of a sturdy philosophy espoused by the late Don McGannon, longtime head of its parent company, Westinghouse's Group W, who preached the importance of local television.
Indeed, McGannon was instrumental in pushing through the idea of taking the half hour from 7:30 to 8 o'clock away from the networks and giving it to local stations to program. This was supposed to spawn a wide diversity of programs, much of it of local origination.
Instead, of course, it gave us a multitude of game shows, but McGannon was a true believer, and more than 13 years ago the Group W stations came on the air with "Evening" featuring local hosts and many locally generated stories.
While "Evening" certainly evolved over the years, losing much of its local flavor when it was nationally syndicated as "PM," it remained a show that was put together by the individual stations, hosted by local personalities. And it provided much more substance than most offerings in this time period.
But McGannon is long gone from Group W's executive suite, and when "Evening" goes tonight it will mark the apparent end of Channel 13's commitment to local programming.
Just a few years ago, WJZ had "People are Talking" on every day and "Evening" on every night. That's an hour and a half beyond the news programs. "People are Talking" was canceled, its replacement, a half hour after the noon news, wasn't even given a chance.
The demise of "Evening" means the that most prominent feather -- virtually the only one left -- in WJZ's local programming cap is the Saturday night shout-fest "Square Off," a discussion show which values volume above reason.
Why, after decades of success, would WJZ choose this course, especially now when local programs are what distinguish the over-the air stations from cable channels?
It looks like yet another case of the bean counters taking over from the broadcasters. Don't blame local management, all the "Evenings" are dying. Somewhere in those Westinghouse corporate suites, Group W stations are now seen not as important institutions in their respective communities but as profit centers that are to be squeezed for as much money as possible.
Local programming is expensive. It's cheaper and easier to stick a syndicated show on the air which is, of course, why such shows have flourished in this so-called prime-time-access time period.
Even though the evidence from all the Group W stations is that the investment in local programming pays off in the long run, the bean counters only think about next quarter's books. Get those "Evening" personnel off the books and put "Entertainment Tonight" on the air, as Channel 13 will do, and the bottom line improves.
The fact that such a move might begin to erode the loyalty a community feels to a station and thus lead to a long-term deterioration of its performance is not factored in. By the time those problems show up, the current crop of bean counters will have pulled the ripcords on their golden parachutes and floated down to some cushy reward.
The evidence for this bottom-line mentality taking hold at Group W extends beyond the cancellation of "Evening." Consider that in addition to the "Evening" staff members losing their jobs, Channel 13 is also laying off eight other employees.
This seems an obscene move from the outfit that is by far the most successful station in town and must be indicative of pressure to increase those profit margins coming from above.
And look also at the bargain basement way "Evening" is leaving us, with the whimper of an underfinanced half-hour goodbye, not the hour or 90-minute special that it deserves after more than 13 years on the air -- with good numbers right until the end. By the way, co-host Donna Hamilton has a contract with the station until July, though it's not clear what she will be doing. Steve Aveson is leaving immediately.
Many other American industries -- such as automobile and steel -- have learned the tragic consequences of the type of short term thinking that killed "Evening," but the lessons don't seem to have taken hold in broadcasting, where the fortunes of two of the three networks -- NBC and CBS -- have sunk since the businessmen took over from the broadcasters.
McGannon was a broadcaster, and programs like "Evening" were the result. When "Entertainment Tonight" shows up on Channel 13 Monday at 7:30, it will besmirch his admirable legacy.