Great Network Switch May Require Detective Work to Find a Favorite Show


Friday, 8 p.m., "Diagnosis Murder," starring Dick Van Dyke. Dr. Sloan investigates the murder of a comedy writer in New Rochelle. The writer is killed after tripping over an ottoman in his living room. The chief suspect is the writer's wife, described by neighbors as an unfailingly perky woman usually seen wearing Capri pants. But the wife had a secret: She was planning to leave New Rochelle for a TV news job in Minneapolis.

You missed that episode, didn't you? Baltimore's CBS affiliate, WBAL-TV, instead shows "Baywatch" on Fridays at 8.

And then there was: Saturday, 9:30 p.m., "Hearts Afire," starring John Ritter and Markie Post. A romantic evening for John (Ritter) and Georgie Ann (Post) goes awry when John accidentally lets slip that he once shared an apartment with a blonde and a brunette. Georgie Ann doesn't buy his story that it was strictly platonic. "Next thing you'll tell me is that Barney Fife was the apartment manager," she says.

Sounds pretty good, but you missed that one, too. Channel 11 was screening "Hawkeye."

What's a television fan to do? WBAL has not been carrying five of CBS' prime-time shows this fall, three holdovers ("Hearts Afire," "Love & War" and "Diagnosis Murder") and two new offerings ("The Five Mrs. Buchanans" and "Daddy's Girls"). Instead, Baltimore viewers are getting the hot bathing-suited buns of "Baywatch" or another lesson in method acting from "Who's the Boss?"

Channel 11, obviously wanting to get a jump on addling the viewers who will be dazed and confused when The Great Network Switch occurs in January, has opted to ignore those series it deemed not worth its air time. ("Diagnosis Murder," for instance, draws high ratings only in nursing homes.)

In August, WBAL announced its decision to pre-empt the five shows and run syndicated programs instead. "We think it's good business for us and better shows for our viewers," Channel 11 general manager Phil Stolz said at the time.

The good business part for WBAL is that syndicated shows can bring more advertising money to the station than do network programs.

As for better shows: Dudley Moore vs. Tony Danza . . . you make the call. Theater historians may be debating that one for ages.

The backdrop for the decision was The Great Network Switch. With WBAL becoming an NBC affiliate in January, it undoubtedly felt less inclined to help CBS by carrying weaker programming. Channels 2 (going to ABC) and 13 (to CBS), however, opted not to pre-empt network series leading up to the switch.

(Historically, three-station network swaps have been rare, WBAL researcher Sharon Walz said, though two-station switches aren't that unusual. However, the changing TV landscape has resulted in a triple move in Cleveland last month and the completion of a quadruple move -- including a Fox affiliate -- in Phoenix in January, she said.)

In fact, Mr. Stolz told The Sun's David Zurawik in August that he would have preferred to make the switch with the beginning of the fall season in September, but Channel 13 wanted to keep the strong ABC lineup for the last four months.

"It's like WJZ and CBS agree to get married, but 'JZ wants to go out with its old girlfriend [ABC] for four more months before the wedding," Mr. Stolz said then.

Sure, but at least that gives us time to buy a blender for the happy couple.

Meanwhile, there may be hope for Baltimore fans of "Love & War" and the other four pre-emption victims. There is the possibility that CBS could find them a home elsewhere in the market before January.

Hey, then we all could get a jump on being confused. Not that we really need it.

"I don't understand what they're doing," said Patricia Joyner of Baltimore. "They flip the shows around every so often I don't even know which is which."

And Ms. Joyner is not in a household of TV novices. Her husband, two daughters, son and niece help keep four televisions going.

"I did want to see 'Love & War,' " she said.

But she seems ready to give up on lots of programs when Baltimore's three major network affiliates pull their switch.

"A lot of shows that I want to watch will go by the wayside," she said.

Her husband, Norman, on the other hand, appeared less concerned.

"If it doesn't have a ball or a puck in it, I don't watch it," he said.

(Especially for Norman Joyner: In the next episode of "The Five Mrs. Buchanans," the women argue over whether to form a basketball team or to seek a sixth Mrs. Buchanan for a hockey team.)

Herbie Hartman of Reisterstown hadn't even heard of most of the CBS shows she was missing.

"The only one that I really know is 'Love & War,' and I'm going to miss it," said Ms. Hartman, a mother of two.

L The local stations haven't lived up to their word, she said.

"It's not really fair to the viewers. It's like they have a contract, and they're not going to honor it."

The problem is that Baltimore's affiliates have renegotiated those contracts. Come January, everything changes. It works like this: 11 becomes 2, 2 becomes 13 and 13 becomes 11. Of course, if you have cable, 11 already may be 21 and 2 is 12 and 13 is 23.

And it won't help to dial 0 or 411 in order to find "Rescue 911."

In the meantime, Dick Van Dyke has become David Hasselhoff. And don't forget the night when Candice Bergen follows herself instead of being followed by Annie Potts, who is hooked up with Jay Thomas, who used to be Candice's love interest.

Some people don't have this problem, though. If you're lucky enough to subscribe to a cable system that carries Washington's Channel 9, you can see those five shows (and those five Mrs. Buchanans). And, best of all, 9 is probably 9 on your TV. As opposed to people who don't get Washington stations. For them, 9 is zero.

In summary, then, this fall TV season has a number of problems. As the saying goes, stay tuned. Just don't ask us to which channel.

Ray Frager, an assistant sports editor at The Sun, is on the disabled list with a sprained remote control finger.

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