There's still a week until the big network-affiliate switch, but for Baltimore viewers the madness has begun.
In coming days, there will be some strange programming pre-emptions, two locally-produced specials about the switch will air in prime time during the week, and the bulk of an estimated $3 million to $4 million in switch-related advertising will be spent.
"It is going to be a wild week, and the switch is a big part of that. But, just to put it in some perspective, this week between Christmas and New Year's is always a wild week for viewers," said Douglas Gomery, a media economist at the University of Maryland in College Park.
"There are always a lot of pre-emptions, always a lot of reruns, always a lot of crazy programming, because people are out of the house exchanging Christmas presents, going to grandma's house or whatever. In Baltimore, the upcoming switch adds to all of that," Dr. Gomery said.
Let's start with the switch and its contribution to the confusion.
At 5 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 2, all three of Baltimore's VHS stations will switch network affiliates -- the largest network-affiliate switch in the nation so far:
* WMAR (Channel 2), now with NBC, will join ABC.
* WBAL (Channel 11), now with CBS, will join NBC.
* WJZ (Channel 13), with ABC for 44 years, will join CBS.
The impending switch gives the three stations a new freedom to ignore network programming and air syndicated or locally-produced fare instead during prime time.
With network shows, most of the ad dollars spent in Baltimore go back to the networks. With syndicated and locally-produced shows, the locals get to keep it all.
Normally, their network-affiliate contracts would prohibit most pre-emptions.
But, in these final days, most, if not all, bets are off.
Tonight, viewers of WBAL will see four episodes of "Murphy Brown," starting at 9. The first half-hour is a CBS rerun episode. But the next three half-hours are syndicated rerun episodes that WBAL owns the rights to.
WBAL has been running two episodes of "Murphy Brown" each Monday since September. The first half-hour was a first-run episode. But the second "Murphy" each week was a syndicated rerun that WBAL aired instead of the first-run episode of "Love and War."
The decision to run four episodes of "Murphy Brown" tonight was made in reaction to CBS's move to re-launch "Chicago Hope." The medical drama will be aired four nights this week, three of those episodes being reruns.
"We had not planned a lot of pre-emptions," said Emerson Coleman, director of broadcast operations at WBAL. "But, when CBS came up with this 'Chicago Hope' plan, it necessitated other program ming moves on our part. CBS called us about 'Chicago Hope' and they kind of knew it was unlikely we'd go along with the three reruns."
So, tonight there are two extra episodes of "Murphy Brown" instead of "Chicago Hope." Tomorrow night, WBAL airs two reruns of "Rescue 911." And Friday night, WBAL repeats its special on the BSO's Asian tour.
WBAL will also pre-empt the network at 8 Wednesday night for "By River, By Rail," a special it produced on the migration of African-Americans from the South to northern cities.
On Jan. 1, WBAL once again bumps CBS at 8 p.m. for the first airing of its one-hour special on the affiliate swap, "The Big Switch." The program will feature Rod Daniels and Carol Costello telling viewers about the station's switch from CBS to NBC on the following day.
WMAR will be also be doing some pre-empting this week.
On Wednesday, it will pre-empt a special year-end edition of "TV Nation" and "Dateline NBC" to air "Blow Out," with John Travolta, a feature film it owns rights to.
Thursday, WMAR dumps NBC's "Madman of the People" to air its half-hour switch special, "Survival Guide: The Network Shift of '95."
The special, which features Stan Stovall and Mary Beth Marsden, will air again at 8 Friday night, followed by a WMAR showing of the James Bond feature film "Never Say Never Again." The NBC shows pre-empted are "Unsolved Mysteries," "Dateline NBC" and "Law and Order."
"There are always pre-emptions during this week," said WMAR general manager Joe Lewin, explaining the pre-emptions for movies. "Maybe there are more because of the shift. . . . It's a chance to do some business."
WJZ is not pre-empting its network this week.
"As we end our days with ABC, we made a commitment that we wouldn't willy-nilly begin pre-empting things, and we've lived it up that," said WJZ general manager Marcellus Alexander.
WJZ's special about the affiliate switch will air starting Saturday at 7:30 p.m., but it will not air during prime time, Alexander said.
The station is taking a low-key approach in an effort to minimize viewer confusion, he said.
"From day one, we started out saying our objective is to reduce the confusion. And, when you consider that the loud voices from all the stations have already started and they're only going to escalate even higher in the next few days, it's going to be very confusing for viewers," Alexander said, noting that $3 million to $4 million is being spent collectively to advertise the switch.
Alexander says he asked WMAR and WBAL to join with his station to together create informational messages about the shift, with the aim of speaking to viewers with one voice instead of three. But the arrangement never came together.
Lewin and Stolz disagree with Alexander's description of what was proposed.
And Stolz said the real reason Alexander is being low-key is because WJZ is the loser in the switch, winding up with CBS.
Whatever the case, $4 million buys a lot of ad messages.
So, brace yourself in coming days for even more buses adorned with pictures of anchormen and anchorwomen, billboards springing up with new station logos, glitzy TV specials and endless repetitions of TV ads featuring general managers and characters -- like WMAR's nerdy science teacher -- explaining what the shift means.
As WJZ's Alexander puts it, "It's going to be intense, very intense."