Fake brick walls made of papier-mache. A surprisingly flimsy anchor desk of blond wood standing on a carpeted platform. A couch and two chairs grouped together in front of archways that open to an illusion of endless blue sky. Three huge cameras and too many hanging overhead lights to count.
Welcome to the backstage world of TV news, where everything the cameras photograph is designed to look better on your TV screen than it does in real life.
Today it feels like a warehouse. But tomorrow at 5 p.m. -- when they fire up the cameras and send thousands of watts of electricity dancing through all the Videssence sound stage lights -- it will snap, crackle, pop and gleam like a Broadway stage in living rooms all over Maryland.
Tomorrow is opening night for one of the most important productions in the history of Baltimore television -- WJZ's new 5 o'clock news with Sally Thorner.
For the record, WJZ calls it "Eyewitness News at Five" and has an impressive-looking press kit that stresses its "four-member news team -- Sally Thorner as news anchor joined by John Buren, Bob Turk and Sandra Pinckney."
But Thorner's the franchise. She's the free agent for whom WJZ general manager Marcellus Alexander took out the checkbook and paid $250,000 in November 1992.
You remember that check, the one that made Page One news. Thorner was paid $250,000 from Dec. 1, 1992, to Dec. 1, 1993, for not working. That's because a non-compete clause in her old contract with WMAR (Channel 2) kept her off the air.
Lots of people in Baltimore couldn't believe that a TV station could want an anchorperson that badly.
Actually, Thorner's contract with WJZ runs to December 1997. So there are going to be five of those $250,000 paydays for the 38-year-old Thorner if everything goes according to plan. That's how badly WJZ wanted her.
But the year of easy money is over now. It's a year Thorner says she spent "first and foremost with family" -- her 2 1/2 -year-old son, Everett, and her husband, Brian Rosenfeld, 40, an assistant professor specializing in critical care at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.
She started at WJZ on Dec. 1 and has been substituting for other vacationing anchors this month. Tomorrow, she launches the newscast that WJZ hired her for -- the one management is betting a big chunk of the farm on.
Thorner sat on the news set in Studio A recently to talk about herself and the newscast. Around her, painters, carpenters and set dressers painted, pounded and primped the room, working to make the setting just right for WJZ's new anchor-desk jewel.
Advertisers lined up
During the week of Christmas, when we spoke, advertisers were lining up to buy time during Week 1 of "Eyewitness News at Five" on the bet that most of Baltimore would be tuning in to check out the reincarnation of Sally Thorner on WJZ.
"This is awkward, but since you asked me last week to specifically think about what viewers see when they look at me on TV . . . I've come up with a couple of thoughts," Thorner says.
"First of all, there have been a number of people who have seen my work on 'JZ in the prototypes that we've been doing, who have said, 'You seem different than you were on [Channel] 2. You seem more relaxed, more natural, funnier.'
"And part of it is that I'm writing for this show. I'm now speaking words that I've written, so it's bound to be more natural. There's a certain peace that comes with knowing your stuff. That's one thing.
"And the other thing is that the Sally that people now see [on TV] is exactly the same Sally that people see at the Giant. I'm a mother, I'm a wife, I'm an adult now. I'm not an anchorgirl. I'm an anchorwoman.
"When I came here, I was 27 years old, fresh out of Kansas, single. I was a work-in-progress.
"And I feel like now I see stories the same way a lot of my viewers do. Now I am the viewer. So, when I'm reading a story, it's not just a police blotter to me, because I'm going to picture myself. I mean, remember those horrible carjackings that were going on a year ago? I was Pam Basu. I was in the car taking my 2 1/2 -year-old to school. It was very personal to me.
"I feel like when I started in this business, I used to idolize Jessica Savitch" -- the anchorwoman who joined NBC in 1977 and who quickly rose to national prominence, but who was killed in a freak car accident in 1983.
"But I think I was play-acting at being an anchor when I was 22 years old. You know, 'And this is Sally announcing the news . . . to the masses.' And that's so wrong on so many levels. I think that's all part of how I've changed and what people will see on 'JZ when they tune in. Like I said, now I feel like I am the viewer."
WJZ is telling advertisers there's an audience of about 517,000 viewers from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. weeknights, and that about 207,000 of them watch news. Despite changing lifestyles, the majority of those news viewers are women.
WJZ news director Gail Bending describes the typical 5 o'clock viewer as a woman "cooking dinner or helping the kids with homework."
WMAR has owned most of that audience since WBAL (Channel 11) canceled its early news three years ago. Channel 2 now has an audience of about 155,000 homes from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. weeknights.
But the audience was even larger before Thorner left, according to an A. C. Nielsen year-to-year comparison, which is the only valid kind since it accounts for seasonal viewing patterns.
The 5 o'clock newscast on WMAR has dropped 4 ratings points from November 1992, when Thorner last co-anchored with Stan Stovall, to November 1993, with Mary Beth Marsden in her place. That's a loss of about 38,000 area homes; enough to notice.
It's also enough to give WJZ a reason to believe that Thorner can bring viewers.
WMAR general manager Joe Lewin acknowledges that his early news has lost viewers since Thorner's departure, but says, "Frankly, I don't see a Thorner factor here."
He attributes the audience loss to "news compatible" counter-programming by WBAL and WBFF (Channel 45), with the Phil Donahue and Ricki Lake talk shows, respectively.
As for the showdown with WJZ, Lewin says, "I think our best
weapon here is the fact that we have a strong newscast in place with a loyal audience. We promote heavily. We have good talent in there. We pay a lot of attention to that newscast. Let 'em take a shot at us. We're ready."
WJZ refused requests to let a Sun reviewer attend a rehearsal broadcast last week or see tapes of them. As a result, most of the information about what the newscast will look like comes from the WJZ public relations machine.
The station says the newscast will be "unconventional" -- that it will not be a newscast of record.
As for specifics, it says Bob Turk will do home-improvement tips in addition to the weather, and John Buren will make "wacky" phone calls to news makers as well as deliver sports. Personal finance, health, lifestyle trends, car care and local entertainment briefs will also be featured as part of its "news-you-can-use" focus, station management says.
Continuing the fight talk, WJZ's Alexander says, "I have no Muhammad Ali-type predictions as to when the competitor will fall or expectations of starting off as an overnight time-period winner. . . . We will put on a credible newscast with solid talent and, over time, grow to become the preferred news choice at 5 p.m."
"It's a monster," Thorner says of WMAR's early news.
"It's a monster I helped create. . . . We're going up against an eight-year habit for some viewers. That's a tough challenge. Don't forget, WMAR has the 'Oprah' lead-in to its [5 o'clock] news, which is to die for in this town.
"But these are things I can't control, and I try not to lose sleep over them. We'll just have to see how it goes."
Media buyers say they won't know much about how the matchup is going until February.
"What we're telling our clients as we get ready to buy media schedules . . . is that January is not going to be the defining moment of the ratings," says Dave Robinson, senior vice president and media buyer for W. B. Doner in Baltimore.
"There's the tradition of 'JZ's strength in news and the hype they're giving Sally coming in. At the same time, Channel 2 will be hyping their product, saying they were 'first at 5,' etc.
"So, there will battling and there will be sampling and switching back and forth. But, by the time February comes around, viewers who might have switched over from WMAR to check it out will be coming back, or not coming back. We're thinking February will be the indicator for the rest of the year."
Robinson also has an insight into what it is about Thorner that causes such a stir.
"One of the things that keeps coming back as we talk to clients and everyone else is that people perceive Sally as a major-league talent who probably could have gone to a bigger market or gone to network or CNN," he says, "but has chosen Baltimore as a place she wants to live."
As a result of that perception, watching Sally Thorner makes many Baltimore viewers feel good about themselves, Robinson says.
"I really believe that's how people feel about her. And I want to be careful here, because she's not Jerry Turner. But that's what people thought about Jerry Turner," Robinson says, cautiously invoking the name of the anchorman who took WJZ to an incredible ratings dominance before his death in 1987.
Sally Thorner is not Jerry Turner. But it looks as though she's the closest thing, in terms of the level of interest viewers have in her.
If her new newscast on WJZ is a ratings winner, she's going to own this market. If her newscast even splits the 5 o'clock audience with WMAR, her $250,000 paycheck is going to look like a bargain.
"I'm ready," Thorner said one day last week, sitting at the anchor desk in Studio A after a long photo session. "Boy, am I ready.
"You asked me to try and sum it up. . . . And I feel like I am very much a whole person now, unlike a lot of people in our business, who are so focused on career that that's all they are. I'm not putting them down. I was there.
"But now I feel like I have a really well-ordered sense of priorities. It has to do with age and family and experience. I mean, the difference between the way I used to approach my job and the way I do now is astonishing."
She looked down at her video image on a TV monitor embedded on top of the anchor desk.
"The Sally that people now see on TV . . . is me."