What's on TV? Viewers call stations to find their shows

Some called about their favorite soap operas. Some called trying to find the new home of prime-time shows they like best. And some just wanted to know why the major Baltimore television stations were all swapping networks.

Viewer calls were running up to 10 times the usual rate at Baltimore stations yesterday -- Day One of the highly publicized, three-way, affiliate and network switch that was announced last summer. WJZ (Channel 13), which was associated with ABC and now has moved to CBS, received the most telephone calls, about 1,075, according to a station spokeswoman.


But executives say today is the day that will tell whether viewers are really disoriented or only slightly confused by the historic channel change, and they expect the volume of calls to increase.

Although changes will take place in 33 cities this year, Baltimore's is the first to involve all three old-line network affiliates.


The switch undoes relationships and viewing patterns that have been in place for decades. ABC and WJZ had been affiliated for 46 years -- one of the longest partnerships in the country. In 1981, WBAL and WMAR were involved in what was then a rare affiliate swap when CBS left WMAR.

"We've had periods where we were swamped with calls to our 800-switch line. But, overall, I'd say it's been relatively light so far," Emerson Coleman, broadcast operations manager at WBAL Channel 11), said yesterday. "I think, though, that Tuesday's going to be the first indication of what's really going on, because today's been mostly [football] bowl games."

Mr. Coleman said that WBAL, which switched from CBS to NBC, received 350 phone calls in just three hours Sunday night after it aired a prime-time special on the switch and opened its phone lines. Yesterday between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., the station received about 120 calls. Mr. Coleman said that WBAL normally receives 40 to 50 viewer calls daily.

WJZ's switch line has been open for more than a month. Since opening it Dec. 28, the station has received 4,741 calls about the switch.

Yesterday's 1,075 was the highest volume, followed by 1,014 Dec. 30 and 924 on New Year's Day.

In the past, WJZ's station management has estimated that about 100 viewer calls a day is normal.

"While that's a lot of calls compared to normal," said Liz Chuday, a spokeswoman for WJZ, "it's not a lot compared to 10,000."

She was referring to the 10,000 calls received in the first 48 hours of a two-way switch last month in Detroit involving the CBS and Fox networks and two Detroit stations.


Ms. Chuday said she believes there have been fewer calls in Baltimore than in Detroit, because local viewers have been better prepared for the switch. The three stations are spending a combined $3 million to $4 million in advertising to explain and promote their network switches, according to WJZ's general manager, Marcellus Alexander.

"No matter how you slice it, there's going to be confusion over something like this. But at 'JZ, we asked ourselves how we can limit the confusion. I think switching now rather than back in September gave us more time to help viewers prepare for this and keep it from becoming confusion upon confusion," Ms. Chuday said.

WMAR (Channel 2), which went from NBC to ABC, as the third station in the swap, will open its switch phone lines today at noon. In an earlier interview, the station's general manager, Joe Lewin, said he didn't think there would be many calls until today.

"It's all football bowl games on Jan. 2, so the schedules are disrupted anyway," Mr. Lewin said. "It's not until the following day that viewers will start searching for their favorite shows."

WJZ's 1,075 calls yesterday indicate that Mr. Lewin might have underestimated the confusion that has already set in, but his competitors agree that today is likely to be a much busier day on switch lines.

"Soap operas are one reason," WBAL's Mr. Coleman said. "Yesterday, once viewers realized none of the soap operas were because of the football games, the calls dropped off dramatically. But, today, while the soaps are going to be back on, they are not going to be where they have been for years."


Station executives expect that as the networks return to their regular schedules today, viewers will be back in front of their TV sets looking for the programs they regularly watch.

But many of the programs will not be in their usual places on the remote control. And that's why they expect more calls.

"As to the nature of the calls, the most frequently asked question is why the shift is happening in the first place," said Ms. Chuday. "There are also a lot of questions about favorite shows and the 'JZ news teams."

"We've had a lot of calls on soaps, on our news teams and on prime-time programs," said WBAL's Mr. Coleman. "We've had some calls by people asking if their garbage was going to be picked up. I mean, you get them all. We've even had some calls from our competitors, secretly trying to check up to see if we were really telling callers the truth about where the shows were.

"How do I know they were competitors? We recognized the voice, in one case, and they admitted who it was. Come on, we're all checking up. . . . This is something new for all of us."