David Zurawik

Baltimore's late newscasts are shifting their focus away from sports

When Scott Garceau was forced out of the sports anchor chair at Baltimore's ABC affiliate, competitors said it was a desperate move by a station trying to cut costs.

But since 2008, many stations across the country have scaled back on sports in their late newscasts as well. And this week, Baltimore's WBFF-TV — known for its extensive sports coverage — will consider joining their ranks.

The Fox affiliate will experiment with dropping its 15-minute "Sports Unlimited" segment in favor a shortened sports report within the body of the show.

"Nobody's tuning in and sitting there in front of the TV for half an hour at 11 just to get the score of the game or a highlight or two," PressBox publisher Stan Charles says of the cut backs. "It's like everybody has been ESPN-ized to death, and there's an awareness of that among the stations."

While some stations nationally have done away with a sports anchor, sports department and designated sports block altogether, as WMAR did, sports won't totally disappear from the late local news landscape in Baltimore tomorrow. But increasingly, local stations are de-emphasizing late TV sports in a town where anchors like Vince Bagli were once big local stars.

"Our research indicates that local viewers watch local sports programming less than they did 15 or 20 years ago," says WBFF general manager Bill Fanshawe, adding that the Sinclair-owned station sees a changing marketplace for scores, updates and video from the games of the day. And that market is harder to reach in this summer of sports discontent with an ongoing NFL lockout for the Ravens and another lackluster Orioles performance making for less good sports news than any time in recent memory.

Fanshawe stresses that "no definite decision has been made" about eliminating "Sports Unlimited" as a stand-alone block that runs from 10:45 to 11 p.m. weeknights. He says that if the station does cut back during the 10 p.m. hour of news, it will likely add a sports segment to the end of its 30-minute newscast at 11.

But he also acknowledges that "viewing patterns have changed, and there is so much more sports information readily available" on cable TV, the Internet and social media.

Bill Hooper, general manager of WMAR, describes a pattern of stations cutting back until there is often only 60 seconds of sports left in the newscast. At that point, he says the question becomes: Why do any sports at all?

"What's basically happening around the country now is what happened with us three years ago," Hooper says. "We had Scott Garceau and he's been here a million years, and we love Scott. … But when his contract came up, it was an opportunity to say, 'You know what? This is the time. Why are we going to do another three-year deal?' And that's what other stations are doing. They're not firing people, but when the contract comes up, they say, 'OK, this is a high-priced guy and we're only giving him a minute and half at the end of the newscast, so what are we doing here anyway?'''

Hooper says the pattern of downsizing TV sports departments and eliminating anchors is so widespread that when the station recently hired a national talent search firm to help it find a new morning co-anchor, it was swamped with audition tapes from out-of-work TV sports anchors.

"I would say a third of the people we saw were sports guys trying to convert into regular anchors, because their sports department had been either cut back or eliminated, and these guys wanted to stay in television," Hooper said. "So they're trying to re-invent themselves."

One former TV sports anchor who has successfully re-invented himself as a radio personality is Steve Davis, who co-hosts the morning show on WJZ-FM (105.7 The Fan) with Ed Norris.

"Ultimately, I decided, 'Would I rather get three minutes on a good day on television or three hours every day on the radio?'" says Davis, a fixture on Baltimore and Washington TV from 1994 to 2010. In Baltimore, he covered sports for TV stations WBFF and WBAL.

"For me, my decision became very easy when I was in Washington, D.C., and they were cutting the time of the sportscasters to a minute, a minute and a half," he explains. "And you see many TV sportscasters become radio talk shows hosts because we all have a lot to say and on television we lost the forum to say it."

WMAR's Hooper believes larger social and technological forces have already determined the fate of late sports on TV.

"Even with a delayed Orioles game or something, the Blackberries are going, you've got the Internet, and people know the scores," Hooper says.

And then, there is the matter of gender, and what the arrival of the sports anchor says to the largest portion of the audience: women.

For most women, Hooper says, "sports is really just a signal that says, 'OK, news is over.'"

Charles, who now does a TV version of "Press Box" for WMAR on weekends, says he doesn't believe "people are less interested in sports" today than they were five or 10 years ago.

"Quite the contrary, I think they're more interested in sports," he says. "But, I think, for some stations the resources just aren't there given the payback they get today with audiences going to all these other new places for sports information."

Management at WBAL and WJZ, the ratings leaders in late news, says late sports is still important, but both have redefined to some extent the ground rules for how much airtime sports gets. Both stations have cut the clearly designated sports segment down in length in recent years.

"On any given night, we're probably going to run about a 21/2-minute sportscast with Mark Viviano, and our goal is to have a fast-paced, the best-of-the-day's sports stories with lots of good video," says Gail Bending, WJZ's news director.

"But what we do a lot of," she adds, "is that if there's a sports story that's more than a sports story — if it's in the psyche of everybody, it's important, or it's high interest — we are very quick to move it up in the first section of the news. Our philosophy is sports and weather are news, and when they're big enough news, we put them in the top section of the show."

Dan Joerres, general manager of WBAL, says his station doesn't designate any set block of time for sports on weeknights. Instead, each night, sports is evaluated for its news value, and then is allotted time accordingly.

"We don't have a set protocol, but I believe this is a great sports town, and our fans really want late sports, and we give it to them," Joerres says, pointing out that WBAL has three full-time on-air sports personalities in Gerry Sandusky, Pete Gilbert and Keith Mills. The latter two, however, also do radio for the Hearst-owned operation.

Garceau, who now headlines an afternoon drive-time radio show on WJZ-FM, says the philosophy of sports' earning its time during the late news can translate in practice to less and less late sports.

"One of the frustrating things as a TV sportscaster in recent years is that you would put in a 12- or 13-hour day, and then, they say there's an accident on the Beltway, you got 60 seconds tonight," he says.

"Or, we're not going to do sports at all, because there's a big fire that's broken out," he adds. "And you just felt diminished. You feel what you do isn't important in the big picture. Where at least now I work for a station that's all about sports. It's the main thing on the menu."