Every day at WJLA-TV-7, sportscaster Frank Herzog wages a race against time. He usually loses.
Even before Channel 7 cut back its 6 p.m. newscast to 30 minutes earlier this year, Herzog almost always had less air time than his direct competition, Channel 4's George Michael and Channel 9's Glenn Brenner. And now, under the revised format, Herzog is reduced to hit-and-run appearances on the 5 o'clock, 6 o'clock and 11 o'clock newscasts.
The sports-oriented viewer gets cheated under the new setup. Formerly, Herzog would do six minutes or more on the hour-long 6 p.m. newscast. Now, Herzog gets three minutes or so on the hour-long 5 p.m. newscast and about three minutes on the streamlined 6 p.m. newscast. You have to watch 90 minutes to receive what amounts to incomplete sports coverage.
Channel 7's philosophy on the 5 p.m. show is most curious. The early newscasts on all three stations serve as sort of an hors d'oeuvre, a feature-oriented, lighter presentation designed to whet our appetite for the 6 o'clock main course. WJLA uses a triple-anchor setup -- sort of a newscast version of a wishbone backfield -- and most of the time, when Herzog or weatherman Dave Sweeney come on the set, they will stand next to the seated newscasters, as if they're not planning to stay a long while. They don't.
Additionally, Herzog's brief 5 o'clock stint usually is devoted to one feature topic and nothing else.
"We had some research show that with the amount of repetition in sports, viewers see the same highlights sometimes three or four times, especially if they see the late newscast the night before," said Tom Doerr, WJLA news director. "Our 5 o'clock audience is largely women, and their interest in sports is not as great. We're attempting to appeal to a broader base, and that's why we tend to do longer features."
Herzog declined to comment on the format change.
Keeping the repetition factor in mind, the 6 o'clock sportscast often concentrates on previewing night events, Doerr said. But again, Herzog's time limitations force him into a tough position. And in seeking a different approach, Herzog often will do his sportscasts from Capital Centre or Redskin Park, which frequently causes irritating production problems, such as cueing up the videotape at the right moment.
Seemingly, the format change puts Herzog at a big disadvantage against Michael and Brenner, especially losing that big time chunk afforded to sports at 6 o'clock. The difference between six minutes and three minutes is more than just 180 ticks of the clock; it's peace of mind and pacing. The six-minute stint leaves the sportscaster a chance to cover most breaking news adequately, do a timely feature and inject some personality. The three-minute sprint just leaves Herzog winded.
WJLA's commitment to sports appears to undermine Herzog. Even on NFL draft day, Channel 7 gave him no additional time, and when you throw in Roger Clemens' record-breaking 20 strikeouts, as well as the NBA and NHL playoffs, Herzog might have done well to split the screen and ask colleague Rick Schwartz to join him to get all the news in.
Still, Doerr said the station is looking "at ways of expanding our sports commitment by the fall," and he wants Herzog to carve his niche in the local scene. "George Michael is by far and away, from what we know, the most popular sportscaster in the market," Doerr said. "Brenner falls in between, and then there's Frank. We can't out-Michael Michael or out-Brenner Brenner. We want to allow Frank to be Frank. We want to center on his qualities. He's analytical and friendly.
"We're trying to program to a broader audience. Is it working? I don't know . . . To our average viewer, the feeling that we have is that we're providing enough sports coverage . To the one-third of our audience that are basic sports fans, we probably don't do enough."
Jon Miller, the Baltimore Orioles' play-by-play broadcaster on radio since 1983, is renowned for his inventiveness on the air and his ability to mimic other baseball announcers. Mutual's Larry King, a great admirer of Miller, loves to recall when Miller combined both of those talents late last season.
"It was the final week of the season and I was in the radio booth sitting next to Jon. All of a sudden, Jon starts saying on the air, 'You know, we often see Larry King out at the ballpark even when he's not working on a telecast, but he's not around today.' I can't figure out what Jon's doing, I don't know where he's going to take this.
"Well, then he goes, 'Anyway, I've been working on my Larry King impersonation, and it's not very good yet, but let me give it a go.' And then he slides the microphone over in front of me, gets up and leaves the booth.
"I do a half inning of play-by-play and then Miller comes back into the booth after the commercial break and says, 'I hope you enjoyed my Larry King impression.' And that's that. A couple of nights later, I'm doing my radio show, and one of the callers mentioned that he heard Jon Miller doing an impression of me on an Orioles game and that it was pretty good."