Flickering hopes at WMAR Television: Channel 2 has been working to get out of the ratings cellar, but no one seems to have noticed.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A year ago, WMAR, Channel 2, was at the bottom of Baltimore's TV news ratings heap and sinking. So new people were put in charge and given a simple mission: Make Things Better.

A year later, WMAR is still at the bottom of Baltimore's ratings heap, and the ratings numbers have gotten worse. But station management insists WMAR is heading in the right direction.

"When you sit back and think, jeez, it's been a year, it looks like we're moving pretty slow," Vice President and General Manager Steven Gigliotti says. "But when you think about it, it's not. To get the right individuals and then to focus on the areas -- sales, news, marketing and promotion -- that needed work, it's a real task. And we're about 90 percent of the way there."

To the surprise of many, the station's new management didn't fire the station's on-air talent and start from scratch. Instead, they've been content with working behind the scenes, tinkering with the news format and, as they explain it, giving the people who are already there a chance to succeed.

"A television station, when running well, is a finely tuned, complicated machine," says Gigliotti, who came to WMAR from Sacramento, Calif., in October 1996. "In the past few years, this finely tuned machine had started to break down."

The numbers suggest Gigliotti and his team -- which includes a new promotions director, station manager/news director and sales manager -- have a lot of repair work ahead of them. Since October 1996, WMAR's total market share has fallen from 12 to 10 (share is the percentage of the viewing audience tuned to a particular station). WBAL (Channel 11) fell from 20 to a 17 share, while WJZ (Channel 13) climbed from 16 to 17.

The station's news division is doing even worse: its 11 p.m. newscast earned only a 9 share in October, compared with 19 for both WJZ and WBAL; even WBFF's 10 p.m. news on Channel 45, with a 10 share, performed better. In terms of viewers, WMAR's flagship newscast was watched by about 57,000 fewer households than WJZ's and 54,000 fewer than WBAL's.

Additionally, WMAR gave up its affiliation with top-rated NBC in 1995 to go with the now third-rated network, ABC. Taking prime-time programming (8 p.m.-11 p.m.) as a whole, WMAR finished October with a 10 share, compared with 18 for WBAL (NBC) and 17 for WJZ (CBS).

And a few years back, the station lost rights to the mega-popular "Oprah Winfrey Show," losing what could have been a perfect lead-in to one of its daily newscasts.

No drastic change

As weak as WMAR's numbers are, they're not what some media observers find most surprising. To them, the real question is, why hasn't there been a more dramatic change at the station?

"I think they came in with strong guns and a lot of intentions, and I'm not sure that the follow-up was there," says Jane Goldstrom, media buyer for the advertising firm of Malis Goldstrom Hopson. "They need to rework everything and present it as a package. It's time for them to do something."

A year ago, say WMAR's managers, the news division was a place where creativity was ignored, where a chasm seemed to exist between the station and the community it was supposed to serve, where too much attention was paid to making money and not enough to making friends.

The way to fix all that, Gigliotti says, is with a scalpel, not a sledgehammer: put the right people in place behind the scenes, establish better ties with the community, come up with an appealing and distinct news format and promote the heck out of what you're doing.

However, visible changes have been minimal. WMAR's newscasts sport new lighting and a new slogan that promises "coverage, community, commitment." Some features have been added to the news, including remote broadcasts from area communities and reporter Sandra Pinckney's visits with prominent Maryland personalities.

"They're basically following what WBAL did with 'Live. Local. Late-breaking,' " says Goldstrom. "It's nothing that innovative or that makes them stand out."

So far, none of the station's anchors -- Stan Stovall, Mary Beth Marsden, Rudy Miller, Sandra Pinckney, Scott Garceau, Norm Lewis, Jaime Costello and Veronica Johnson -- has been bounced. Nor does Gigliotti expect a purge anytime soon.

"My marching orders were to begin the process of rebuilding the station. I was told, 'We would prefer, as a company, that you not go in and wipe out the whole population and start over again.' Not that I would anyway; that's not how I do things."

Gigliotti's competition wishes him, at least partially, well.

"Competition makes us all better, and best serves the interests of our viewers and advertisers," says WJZ Vice President and General Manager Marcellus Alexander. "It also makes Baltimore a better place for broadcast news."

Goal: Back on top

The goal for Gigliotti and his team is simple: reverse nearly three decades of misfortune and return Channel 2 to the dominance it once enjoyed as Baltimore's oldest and most successful television station.

"When I started there in 1967, Channel 2 was the 500-pound gorilla, they were the huge No. 1 station," remembers reporter and former anchor Jack Bowden, whose tenure at the station extended into the early 1980s. "We were No. 1 through the late '60s."

But then a cult of personality began to emerge around news anchors, and WMAR found itself odd man out. Over at WJZ, the avuncular Jerry Turner was emerging as perhaps the most dominant TV personality this market has ever known. WBAL's team was led by Rolf Hertsgaard, who bore a passing resemblance to NBC's legendary Chet Huntley and whose specialty was delivering the news straight, but with a glint in his eye that suggested a touch of mischief.

George Rogers at WMAR, meanwhile, was a man of unquestioned news skills whose dour appearance and old-school ways left him ill-suited to a format that depended more and more on lighthearted chit-chat. Warm and cuddly were just not adjectives George Rogers brought to mind. The station fired him in 1978, after 20 years of service.

It's been a downhill slide ever since. In the mid-'70s, for instance, former anchor Dennis Holley sued a disc jockey for making a racist joke at his expense. Holley won the suit, even though two of his co-workers testified for the other side.

WMAR then settled on the team of Tom Sweeney and Tobie Marsh, who never clicked on the air or off.

In 1982, a strike at the station forced management to step in front of the camera -- save for Marsh, who crossed the picket lines after claiming her religious beliefs prevented her from siding with her co-workers.

That didn't sit well with Baltimore's traditionally blue-collar population or Sweeney, who walked the line along with most of the station's on-air talent. In a published interview, he said of his partner, "She's not a bad person, but she's dumb as a box of rocks."

At one point, despairing of finding someone with Jerry Turner's personality, station management decided to bring in a big name. They settled on Nelson Benton, a well-regarded, no-frills CBS news veteran.

But Benton was unhappy with a format that stressed chatting with his co-anchor as much as delivering the news. He lasted just two years.

Such bad luck, and bad chemistry, has dogged WMAR for the past quarter-century. Even when the station did find a genuine crowd-pleaser and ratings grabber in Sally Thorner, WJZ simply flexed its considerable muscle and hired her away in 1992 to anchor its early-evening broadcasts.

"There are some TV stations around the country that are cursed," says Jeff Salkin, a Baltimore native and former WBAL reporter who now delivers the news for MPT. "I don't know if WMAR is one of them, but every market seems to have one station that can't win for losing."

Origin of troubles

Many observers trace WMAR's troubles to a lack of continuity.

Its revolving door of personnel and formats hasn't given viewers anything to be loyal to. Since 1988, the station has had three different owners -- the A.S. Abell Co. (former owner of The Sun), the Nashville-based Gillett Group Inc., and Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Co., which bought the station in 1991 for $125 million.

In contrast, both Hearst-owned WBAL and Westinghouse-owned WJZ have remained under the same ownership for years.

"They kept bringing in new management from out of town, who kept bringing in new talent from out of town," says Bowden, who left the station in the early '80s following a contract dispute. "The new people didn't know Baltimore or Maryland, and the new people they hired didn't know it."

"That never works in this market," says Salkin, who's been on the air in Baltimore since 1984. "People want to see people they're familiar with. And WJZ has a lock on that."

Those are mistakes Gigliotti and his team, including News Director Drew Berry, seem intent on avoiding, judging by their reluctance to institute a wholesale house cleaning.

"It's pretty clear to me that the tradition in this market with WJZ dates back years and years," says Berry, who moved to WMAR in March from WFAA in Dallas. "You know the players and the brand of TV news they were able to build with those anchors. This is a long-standing tradition, and one that has obviously worked."

WMAR anchor Stan Stovall, a veteran of nine years at the station, is cautiously optimistic about the new regime.

"I think what Steve and Drew have done was say, 'Look, let's call the kettle black. We can't bring NBC back, we can't bring Oprah back, but there are other things we can work on to strengthen the basics of broadcasting and putting on a solid newscast.' That's what we've been working on."

Change in news shows

Beyond that, Gigliotti and Berry say, they are shifting their news format to emphasize community, to report the news, warts and all, but in a way that isn't relentlessly downbeat.

"Watching our newscasts, I want people to be like, 'OK, I was informed about my world today, I was told about the things that affect my kids, my family, me, my job. And you know what? The sky isn't falling.' "

The approach, Berry stresses, is not a return of "family-sensitive news," a more upbeat news format that bombed at WMAR a few years back.

"That's not what we're doing. We're going to give you all the news, we're going to cover all the news, but we're going to cover it in a way that is balanced, that takes the high road, that has perspective and gives people a true sense of what's going on."

What viewers want, Berry says, is the hard facts delivered with a smile and a sense of compassion, by people they've come to know.

Whether Channel 2 can pull that off, and whether anyone will be watching when they do, remains to be seen.

Pub Date: 11/09/97

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