Viewers who tuned into WMAR (Channel 2) this week at 4 p.m. could be excused if they were a bit confused: instead of chat, they got the news.
WMAR executives decided not to renew Rosie O'Donnell's program for its 3 p.m. slot when the station's contract with her syndicate expired last week, preferring the controversy and heat stirred by the new advice show of Laura Schlessinger. But Schlessinger's program does not debut until Monday.
So, with no fanfare, WMAR aired a half-hour of news at 4 p.m. each day this week, believed to be the first regular news show at that time broadcast by a Baltimore-area television station. Stations in Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington, among other cities, already maintain an earlier newscast.
The WMAR news program was followed by a half-hour of "Extra," a syndicated show usually broadcast after midnight that details the successes and misfortunes of celebrities. And the Sally Jesse Raphael talk show, WMAR's usual program at 4 p.m., was moved earlier to fill the 3 p.m. time slot.
"Literally, on Friday of the previous week, we considered doing a number of things during that hour," said Drew Berry, the station's general manager. "Without any promotion, we did a half-hour of news and a half-hour of 'Extra.'
The move is not permanent. But it ultimately could be.
On Monday, the ABC affiliate will revert to a more typical schedule, with Schlessinger's show at 3 p.m., followed by Raphael at 4 and the evening news at 5.
However, station executives, have been weighing the notion of starting a 4 p.m. newscast. The Oprah Winfrey Show, on WBAL-TV (Channel 11), remains the market's dominant program at 4 p.m. WJZ (Channel 13) snapped up O'Donnell for its 4 o'clock period, which premiered on Monday.
A move by third-rated WMAR to start a 4 p.m. newscast could prove to be a bold stroke of "counter-programming" that picks up potential viewers uninterested in the talk shows. Or it could lag far behind the other stations.
"You see 4 o'clock newscasts popping up all over the country," said Princell Hair, news director for WBAL. "I'm not sure Baltimore is necessarily ready for one."
But Berry stressed that this week's experiment should not be taken as proof that his station would start the region's earliest evening news on television.
Mary Bubala, generally a weekend anchor, and Janet Roach, a morning anchor, led the newscast this week, offering a heavy emphasis on headlines and syndicated stories focusing on women's issues and financial matters.
A few slips emerged. Weather forecaster Norm Lewis, speaking from a remote feed, signed off uncertainly: "Back to the news desk with Mary, and, um, um ..."
Bubala jumped in: "Janet. Gets confusing every so often."
At the end of the show, Roach thanked viewers for watching the newscast for the week. Added Bubala: "It's been early, but it's been fun."