Market Eye: Hit Pause, Then Play Again

After Baltimore stations aided a rival in bizarre crisis, they quickly resumed battle in local TV-hungry area
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Baltimore's TV stations duke it out as much as any market’s competitors, but when a bizarre act of madness struck one, the rivals quickly switched to help mode. On May 13, a man who claimed to be God rammed a stolen dump truck into the WMAR lobby, prompting an evacuation. Other stations pitched in to keep stricken WMAR on the air. WJZ, for its part, put its live stream on WMAR’s website.

“You put your competitive hat aside,” says Jay Newman, WJZ president and general manager. “We were pleased they reached out to us, and happy we could help in their time of need.”

WBAL offered equipment, and even sent an ice cream truck over to WMAR a few days later to boost shaken staffers’ spirits. “We made sure we achieved our main goal as broadcasters, which is keeping the public informed and safe,” says Dan Joerres, president and general manager at WBAL.

The disturbed man was arrested; no staffers were hurt. After a quick ice cream break, it was back to fighting the news fight in Baltimore.

CBS-owned WJZ won total-day household ratings and primetime comfortably in the May sweeps. It posted a 6.4 household rating/12 share at 11 p.m., ahead of WBAL’s 6.1/12; the two were virtually deadlocked in adults 25-54. Hearst Television’s WBAL, the NBC affiliate, won the a.m. households race, with WJZ ahead in 25-54. WJZ won 6 p.m. by a hair.

WJZ has focused on sharpening and better communicating its brand in DMA No. 27. “We have been seen, and continue to be seen, as the station that’s closely connected to the neighborhoods and communities throughout Maryland,” says Newman. “People work hard at it on the air and in the community, and I think we’re seeing results of that.”

WBAL, with a pair of radio stations in the market as well, pushes its investigative chops and the Hearst cornerstone Commitment 2014, with at least 12 minutes of daily political coverage for the month prior to a general election. The station also puts its weight behind community events such as a 200th anniversary celebration this September for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which was composed in Baltimore. “We really hang our hat on localism,” says Joerres.

Scripps owns ABC affiliate WMAR. Sinclair has Fox station WBFF, which shares an operation with closely aligned Deerfield Media’s WUTB, a MyNetworkTV affiliate, and Cunningham’s WNUV, a CW. Comcast is the market’s main subscription TV operator, while Verizon FiOS is well-represented too.

WMAR undertook a dramatic revamping of its 6 p.m. news in April; In Focus now features more in-depth reporting on fewer stories. “The reaction from viewers and the marketplace has been great,” says Bill Hooper, VP and general manager. “We are bombarded with story ideas and positive comments.” WMAR will play with the formula, such as story length, and formally reintroduce the 6 p.m. news in September, Hooper adds.

WBFF has vastly expanded its news output over the years. It has also increased its community outreach, such as a Health Expo that attracted 30,000 attendees. “As we expand news, we really try to expand our community events,” says Bill Fanshawe, general manager and group manager for Sinclair. “We’ve really made an effort to be part of the community.”

WJZ’s well-known morning anchor Don Scott is set to retire on July 11. The competitors see opportunity for sampling, but Newman says it’s thus far been a “pretty seamless” transition with Linh Bui handling more airtime. “We’re blessed with incredible bench strength,” he says.

The local economy is pretty grim, general managers say, though they mention an exceptional sense of local pride among residents. That translates to strong tune-in. “The community really embraces the television stations,” Joerres says.

WHAT’S WORKING IN BALTIMORE

NEWS FLASH! NEWS BACK ON WUTB

While Sinclair flagship WBFF is a busy news operation, siblings WNUV and WUTB are traditionally entertainment destinations. But this past spring, WUTB introduced 25-second news updates at 9:30 p.m., with another slated for 8:30 in the fall. “It gives WUTB a news presence,” says Bill Fanshawe, general manager of WBFF-WUTB-WNUV.

WBFF added weekend morning news in January 2013; Fanshawe says the station has gone from an hour of news a day to eight during his dozen years at the helm. And more is coming to one of the stations. “There will be another hour in ’15—it’s just a question of where we put it,” says Fanshawe. “We intend to continue expanding our news to be the news leader here.”

Baltimore's TV stations duke it out as much as any market’s competitors, but when a bizarre act of madness struck one, the rivals quickly switched to help mode. On May 13, a man who claimed to be God rammed a stolen dump truck into the WMAR lobby, prompting an evacuation. Other stations pitched in to keep stricken WMAR on the air. WJZ, for its part, put its live stream on WMAR’s website.

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