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The Beltway Loosens

Suburban sprawl is drawing Baltimore ever closer to its Beltway neighbor, Washington, D.C. Now it's blurring the lines in Baltimore's station market. Last month, Fox-owned MyNetworkTV affiliate WUTB began simulcasting morning and 10 p.m. newscasts from Fox's WTTG Washington.

Only 35 miles outside of Washington—less than the distance between cities in some hyphenated markets, like Dallas-Ft. Worth—the Baltimore area is home to some 150,000 daily commuters to the nation's capital. “There is so much news that crosses over in these markets,” says WUTB General Manager Alan Sawyer.

Ratings for the WTUB simulcasts have been modest so far—mostly below a 1 rating—but the arrangement has given the station access to news programming without the expense of starting up a newsroom.

Washington news routinely bleeds into the news products of the Baltimore market's heavyweights, Hearst-Argyle's NBC affiliate WBAL and CBS-owned WJZ. While the two are often tied in primetime and total-day ratings, WBAL has the advantage in news, winning the key 5, 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts for the latest 14 rating books.

But WJZ is close behind at 11 p.m.; just a single rating point separated the two late newscasts last May.

Sinclair Broadcasting's Fox affiliate WBFF produces the market's No. 3 late newscast at 10 p.m., beating Scripps Howard's ABC affiliate WMAR.

Last week, WBAL began its Sunday-morning news an hour earlier, at 5 a.m., making it the earliest weekend sign-on in the market.

“Lifestyles are changing, and there is an audience available at that hour,” says General Manager Jordan Weirtlieb.

WJZ, meanwhile, added a third live reporter for its 11 p.m. news, and two meteorologists now report on the weather for most major newscasts, one in the studio and the other in the field.

“We often feature weather in the 'A' block as a news story,” says General Manager Jay Newman.

WJZ has also acquired syndicated Dr. Phil from WBAL, a move Newman says will bridge the station's afternoon schedule and its late-afternoon–to– evening-news block.

“We were looking for a stronger lead-in to news and a way to sell early fringe to advertisers,” Newman says.

Other stations have been angling to distinguish their entertainment offerings for the new season.

WMAR will air Rachael Ray, and WUTB is adding Dr. Keith Ablow. To replace Phil, WBAL is shifting The Ellen DeGeneres Show to 3 p.m. and adding The Megan Mullally Show at 11 a.m.

WBFF recently launched a digital broadcast channel called Good TV, featuring classic TV shows and religious broadcasts. Sinclair (which also operates the new CW affiliate WNUV) predicts that the new station will generate $500,000 in revenue in its first year on the air.

The fall's other big change is an influx in political spending (see Station to Station, page 2). Stations are expecting as much as $14 million in political-ad money from hotly contested state and local races, a handsome boost for an already solid market.

Although it is Nielsen's No. 24 station market, Baltimore is No. 22 in revenue. Broadcasters took in $229 million in gross revenues last year.

“The Maryland economy is strong,” says WBAL's Weirtlieb. “We're performing better than the national average.”

Next: Lexington, KY.