There's going to be a big change at the anchor desk of the five o'clock news on WJZ (Channel 13) starting tonight. Richard Sher is being brought in as Sally Thorner's permanent co-anchor on the eve of the November "sweeps" ratings period.
" 'Eyewitness News at Five' has been evolving since it's debut in January, and this is the next evolution," said Gail Bending, the station's news director.
"We tried something new and bold in January with a solo news anchor and a team of people with expanded roles on 'Eyewitness News at Five'," Bending explained. "But 'JZ's newscasts are known for interaction, and what happened was that with just one anchor there was no chance for interaction during the news segments. Adding a co-anchor will give Sally more opportunities to interact during the news."
Thorner, who made headlines in 1992 when she left WMAR (Channel 2) for WJZ and a contract that reportedly pays her $250,000 a year, said she welcomes the addition of Sher.
"I'm looking forward to it," she said. "The show's been evolving for 10 months now, and it's going to be very nice to have a news person, like Richard, sitting next to me. It makes it much easier."
Sher, a 19-year veteran at WJZ who has been co-anchoring weekends, said, "When Sally took some vacation this summer, I did a couple of weeks and I really enjoyed it. The station liked it, too . . . I'm looking for ward to working with Sally. I really like interacting with Sally."
While everyone at WJZ was using words like "evolution" and "interaction" to describe the arrival of Sher, the competition had a different take on the move.
"I don't think there's any doubt that they are trying to give the show a boost," said Jack Cahalan, news director at WMAR. "It's been wallowing for several months now. There's no real progress. It's just kind of stuck where it started, and I think they're seeing that the crew that's on the air on their own right just isn't cutting it."
Cahalan said "time will tell" if adding Sher will help WJZ. "But, you know, when it comes right down to it, we just keep doing what we've been doing and try to fine tune it, and we don't even worry about them any more."
WMAR's 5 p.m. newscast weeknights is currently number one, and there is considerable distance between it and second place WJZ, according to A.C. Nielsen.
Currently the gap is about four ratings points, or 38,000 Baltimore area homes. WMAR's audience consists of about 105,000 homes while WJZ's is about 67,000 homes.
Making matters worse for WJZ's "Eyewitness News at Five," though, is the success of actress Ricki Lake's syndicated show, which airs at 5 p.m. on WBFF (Channel 45). Not only does the "The Ricki Lake Show" also have an audience of about 67,000 homes, but it has better demographics than WJZ. According to Nielsen's "sweeps" survey in May -- the most recent demographic analysis of the television market -- WBFF was watched by more women and adults 18-to-49-years-of-age than WJZ.
WBFF management could not be reached for comment on the Sher move.
For WJZ, the road is only going to get rougher in coming months. Next fall, the syndicated show "Oprah" moves from WMAR to WBAL (Channel 11). WBAL, which now airs the syndicated "Donahue" at 5 p.m. weeknights, is expected to launch a local newscast in the time period in September -- using "Oprah" as a lead-in the way WMAR now uses the top-rated talk show.
"It's going to be tough. When Channel 11 goes to its five o'clock [newscast] once they get Oprah, then the market's going to have three [local] news shows at five o'clock. And I want to help do anything I can to make sure ours is the strongest," Sher said.
Bending denied "Eyewitness News at Five" has been a ratings disappointment. If anyone has that perception, she said, it's a matter of different expectations.
"Our goals for the show have probably never matched society's," Bending said. "Yes, we want to be number one. But, so far, the show has exceeded or met our demographic goals."