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ABC-TV to switch from WJZ to WMAR

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The changes sweeping network television came to Baltimore yesterday with the announcement that all ABC shows -- including its highly regarded news and prime-time programs -- will switch from WJZ to WMAR. The move disrupts four decades of viewing habits and could change the balance of power among local stations.

ABC-TV and E. W. Scripps Co. announced a 10-year deal that will make WMAR (Channel 2) and four other Scripps-owned stations ABC affiliates by the end of this year. WMAR has been an NBC affiliate since 1981, when the last big shake-up occurred here.

The ABC-Scripps deal left WJZ (Channel 13), the city's leading ++ station and an ABC affiliate since 1948, without a network. Viewers will have to look to WMAR for such popular shows as "Roseanne," "Home Improvement" and "Coach," as well as sports programs such as "Monday Night Football."

The news rocked the once-placid Baltimore market.

"The market is definitely destabilized. The TV world has turned upside down . . . and Baltimore just felt the impact," said Dave Robinson, the media buyer in Baltimore for the W. B. Doner advertising agency.

Mr. Robinson called the switch "a terrific deal for Channel 2," and Joe Lewin, WMAR's general manager, echoed that assessment, saying that he "was very happy" with the move.

But Mr. Robinson added: "I think the most interesting part to all of this is what happens next."

Does WJZ join NBC, which no longer has a station here, or will it be wooed by Fox or even CBS, now associated with WBAL (Channel 11)?

The catalysts for this upheaval are Fox Television network and its owner, Rupert Murdoch. Last month Fox reached an agreement with New World Communications Group that resulted 12 network affiliates leaving CBS, NBC and ABC for Fox.

The group hurt most by Mr. Murdoch's raid was Scripps. Its stations in Phoenix and Tampa, Fla. -- formerly with Fox -- were left without a network. Scripps stations in Detroit and Cleveland -- both with ABC -- also were being wooed by CBS after Fox gobbled up its affiliates in those cities. In yesterday's deal, Scripps got a network affiliation for its Phoenix and Tampa stations and an upgrade for WMAR in Baltimore in return for continuing its arrangement with ABC in Detroit and Cleveland.

Neither Scripps nor ABC would say yesterday when the switches will take effect. Current contracts allow either the network or the affiliate to end the relationship with six months' notice.

"I really don't know when it will happen in Baltimore," WMAR's Mr. Lewin said yesterday. The switch is expected before the start of the new season in September, though, because it would be less confusing than switching while new shows are being introduced.

Scripps and ABC declined to discuss the specifics of compensation, saying that they had only reached agreement Wednesday and did not yet have a signed deal with all the details worked out. But the realignments mattered more than dollars and cents on this deal, according to industry analysts.

"The new 10-year agreement between ABC and one of the country's most respected media companies brings us unprecedented stability," ABC President Robert Iger said in announcing the deal.

The quest for stability

And stability in their relationships with affiliates is something the Big Three networks want very badly since Mr. Murdoch showed how tenuously those relationships are held together by the traditional one-year affiliate agreements.

Mr. Robinson explained the general cause and effect behind yesterday's deal by saying, "Rupert Murdoch realized that delivery is equal in importance to programming and that the strength of a local affiliate is a big part of what makes a network succeed or not succeed. As a result, what's happening here is that suddenly local stations are being desired."

That worked to WMAR's advantage. "I don't want to say anything to demean NBC, because we've had a good relationship with them. But ABC is a company run by broadcasters with an emphasis on news and information. And I think it's going to make for a perfect relationship with WMAR," said Mr. Lewin.

Great deal for WMAR

It is a great deal for WMAR. It now gets to be the local partner of the top-rated and most-acclaimed network news operation.

For example, instead of Jay Leno and the "Tonight" show, which finishes third locally at 11:35 p.m., WMAR will have Ted Koppel's "Nightline," which finishes first in ratings, ahead of David Letterman. Furthermore, ABC has the best demographic audience of any network for its prime-time programming and is ** expected to do even better next fall with its entertainment lineup.

As for sports, WMAR will get "Monday Night Football" but will lose the American Football Conference games on NBC. Of the two, "Monday Night Football" is considered a better draw in this market.

But industry analysts say don't cry for WJZ. With its top-rated local news operation and the Orioles' broadcasts, WJZ is exactly the kind of an affiliate expected to thrive in the new world of station relations.

"There are a lot of good options, and they are being explored with all the networks," WJZ General Manager Marcellus Alexander said yesterday, adding that it's not automatic that his station will now align with NBC.

While Mr. Alexander declined to discuss specifics, one possibility that has been reported in trade publications is that Fox might buy Group W, which owns WJZ. If that happened, WJZ would be the new home of Bart Simpson in Baltimore, while Al Sanders and Denise Koch would be delivering the news at 10 p.m. instead of 11.

And, if that happened, what would become of WBFF (Channel 45), the current Fox affiliate? Whom would it be aligned with?

Fox is expected to meet with Group W to discuss a possible affiliation with WJZ in Baltimore whether or not other Group W stations would get involved.

But there is also the possibility that CBS would leave WBAL (Channel 11) when their agreement ends if it can make a deal with Group W for WJZ. Phil Stolz, the general manager of WBAL, could not be reached last night for comment.

"There's going to be a lot of confusion with this change," Mr. Alexander said yesterday. "In fact, we've had some calls already from people who are saying, 'Will we still be able to see Al and Denise?'

"We will continue to be committed to local news, and all the anchors and reporters people know will be in place. WJZ will continue to be WJZ," he said.

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Q. What's an affiliate?

A. A privately owned broadcast station aligned with a network by contract.

Q. How can such a station, like WMAR, just up and switch?

A. Traditionally, most contracts between networks and affiliates run only for one or two years. When the contract is up, there's nothing to prevent a switch. Though networks presented themselves to the public as mighty institutions covering the world, in truth, they were mainly confederations of autonomous local stations.

Q. Then why did some stations and networks stay together 45 years, like WJZ and ABC?

A. Because, up until the last decade, there were only three networks and it was to their mutual advantage not to encourage change.

The tradition was for affiliates and networks to stay together developing a synergy. For example, an ABC affiliate in Boston might call its local morning program "Good Morning Boston" to link it to the network's "Good Morning America."

While affiliate changes did take place, they were relatively rare. There was an affiliate switch in Baltimore in 1981 when WBAL and WMAR swapped affiliations with NBC and CBS, respectively.

Q. How is this going to affect me directly as a viewer?

A. Sometime before Jan. 1 (probably before the start of the fall season in September), all of ABC's programming is going to move from WJZ to WMAR.

For viewers watching Baltimore stations, that means such shows as "Home Improvement," "Coach" and "Roseanne" are going to be on Channel 2 instead of Channel 13.

You will also have to tune to Channel 2 instead on Channel 13 if you want to watch "World News Tonight With Peter Jennings" or "Nightline."

Q. What about the Orioles' games on WJZ?

A. No change. They will stay there.

Q. What about Al Sanders, Denise Koch, Sally Thorner and the others on WJZ? Will they stay put, too?

A. Yes, they work for WJZ. That has nothing to do with the networks.

Q. What about Stan Stovall and Mary Beth Marsden on WMAR?

A. That's the same situation; they work for WMAR.

Q. What happens to NBC programs, like "Seinfeld" or "Homicide"?

L A. As of today, NBC does not have an affiliate in Baltimore.

Q. You mean, "Homicide" finally gets back on the air this fall, but I can't see it?

A. You could always watch on the Washington NBC affiliate. But in all likelihood, one of the Baltimore stations will align itself with NBC by September. It is not clear, though, which station that will be, since NBC is not the most attractive network in terms of ratings.

Q. Since WJZ doesn't have a network, won't NBC and WJZ just team up?

A. Not necessarily. WJZ, because of its strong local news and other assets, will possibly be wooed by Fox and CBS.

Q. You mean, it could get even more confusing, with another affiliation that's already in place being broken up in coming months?

A. Yes; in fact, that's exactly what many in local TV think will happen.

Q. How did we get from stable to chaotic?

A. There are a lot of long-term factors involved in the dramatically changing TV landscape, but start with Rupert Murdoch and Fox. Mr. Murdoch wasn't interested in tradition and playing ball the way the Big Three did when it came to network-affiliate relations. Last month, he showed what paper tigers the networks were when he got 12 affiliates to jump to Fox by offering their group owner, New World Communications Corp., more money than CBS, NBC or ABC did.

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