Sally Thorner is leaving WMAR (Channel 2) after 10 years at the anchor desk to join rival WJZ (Channel 13). It is estimated that she will be paid approximately her current salary of $250,000 a year, but the first year she will earn her salary for not being on television.
In a direct assault on Channel 2, Channel 13 general manager Marcellus Alexander said yesterday that his station will launch a 5 p.m. nightly newscast with Ms. Thorner at the anchor desk when she arrives. But Ms. Thorner's contract with Channel 2 contains a no-compete clause that will keep her from joining Channel 13 until December 1993, -- one year after her contract with Channel 2 expires on Nov. 30.
Mr. Alexander declined to discuss specifics of Ms. Thorner's contract but said it is likely that he will wait for 13 months to launch the newscast with Ms. Thorner. That means that after Nov. 30, Ms. Thorner will not be on TV for nearly a year.
Ms. Thorner said she planned to write, continue volunteer work for charities and spend more time with her husband and 18-month-old son.
"WMAR has been very good to me," Ms. Thorner said yesterday, "and I leave here with feelings of great affection. WJZ, however, offered me the opportunity to develop and anchor a brand-new newscast. And on a personal note, my new schedule will allow me to spend more time with my family."
Arnold J. Kleiner, general manager of Channel 2, said he found out late yesterday of Ms. Thorner's decision. "It's true she's leaving," Mr. Kleiner said. "We wish her well. But not too well. In fact, we wish her second place."
Mr. Kleiner added that he had no plans to pull Ms. Thorner off the air during the important November "sweeps" ratings period, which starts Wednesday. Ms. Thorner was at the anchor desk during Channel 2's early newscast last night. Mr. Kleiner said he had not decided on a replacement for Ms. Thorner, who anchors the 11 o'clock newscast as well as the 5 o'clock newscast. He has Beverly Burke, Rudy Miller and Mary Beth Marsden to chose from. Speculation at the station is that Ms. Marsden, who subbed for Ms. Thorner when she was on maternity leave last year, will take over at 5 o'clock.
Meanwhile at Channel 13, Mr. Alexander moved quickly last night in the wake of hiring Ms. Thorner to announce that Channel 13's current first-string anchor, Denise Koch, had signed a new five-year contract.
Part of the backdrop for yesterday's bombshell -- one of the biggest station jumps in Baltimore TV history -- is the arrival Wednesday of new methods for measuring Baltimore audiences. Local viewing is now going to be measured electronically by meters attached to TVs and VCRs instead of by the old method of viewers filling out diaries by hand.
The diary method favored Channel 13, historically the overall ratings leader. One way it did that was that viewers often filled out a diary covering 30 days of viewing in one or two days at the end of the month. What respondents tended to recall was only the top station in town.
In many of the 27 cities where meters have been installed, the ratings for the No. 1 station immediately dropped in subsequent audience surveys. There was some speculation that for the first time in recent memory, Channel 13 would not have the most watched newscast in town. It was possible that Chanel 2's 5 p.m. newscast would have a larger audience than Channel 13's 6 p.m. or 11 p.m. newscast, currently the top-rated newscasts in Baltimore.
Channel 13 currently airs reruns of "Roseanne" at 5. Channel 2 has become a ratings powerhouse at 5 with its newscast featuring Ms. Thorner and Stan Stovall since WBAL (Channel 11) canceled its early newscast in September 1991.
One way for Channel 13 to strengthen the perception of itself as No. 1 and possibly wound Channel 2 was by going after Ms. Thorner.
Mr. Alexander disagreed, saying "This move would have made sense with or without meters. More of a factor was WBAL leaving a void of only one station doing news at 5 o'clock."