Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

Twenty years ago, local television viewers were trying to get their bearings.

It wasn’t just that a new television season was looming, one that would include not only an array of returning hits but the premieres of Friends, ER, Chicago Hope, Party of Five, Touched by an Angel and My So-Called Life. It was a period so big that TV critic Josef Adalian recently called it “what we now recognize as one of network TV’s watershed seasons, an epic year.”

But that wasn’t what had viewers here in an uproar. Rather, they were sorting out all the changes arising from the great network affiliation switch of 1994.

On Labor Day weekend that year, WJW (Channel 8) ended a 40-year association with CBS to join the Fox network, then less than a decade old. Before and after, there had been changes in local television: programs coming and going, anchors moving, new stations and networks arriving. But nothing then or since has seemed quite as crazy and consuming, especially for yours truly, who was just arriving at the Beacon Journal. But in the long run it was also thoroughly market-changing.

It was another way that Fox was making aggressive moves to compete more with the so-called Big Three: ABC, CBS and NBC. In 1993, it cut a deal for part of the National Football League’s TV package beginning in 1994, taking the games previously reserved for CBS. Then, in May 1994, Fox made its blockbuster affiliation deal with New World Communications, owner of WJW and other CBS affiliates; those stations, come that fall, would switch to Fox. The network also bought into New World, and later would buy the company and its stations outright.

Cleveland had a Fox affiliate at that time, WOIO (Channel 19), but WJW was a far more attractive property, not only because of its established place in the market but because its VHF signal (for channels 2 to 13) was able to reach more viewers over the air than WOIO’s UHF.

Indeed, one report that May suggested WOIO might not even be the place for the now-abandoned CBS to go in Cleveland, that CBS “may lean toward Cleveland independent station WUAB (Channel 43) because it has an established local news operation.”

We’ll come back to that news issue.

The Fox/WJW announcement led to rounds of discussions and speculation. CBS, desperate for a strong station in a major TV market, reportedly wooed both WEWS (Channel 5), an ABC affiliate, and WKYC (Channel 3), the NBC affiliate. But each station decided to stay with its network. WOIO and CBS finally made an agreement mid-summer, and eventually everyone decided to make the change on Sept. 3, 1994, just before the new television season began.

Viewers, then, had to be told how things would work. Billboards and other advertising promoted the changes. The Beacon Journal ran guides explaining such nuances as Fox’s prime time would be on Channel 8 but not its children’s programs, which did not fit with WJW’s plans; they ended up on WBNX (Channel 55). David Letterman, whose show WJW had been delaying until after midnight, moved to 11:35 p.m. on WOIO. Pat Summerall and John Madden managed to stay put locally, by moving from CBS’ done-for-the-time-being football broadcasts for Fox’s new ones — which, like CBS’ old ones, were on WJW.

And now, the news.

WJW alone had to adjust its newscasting schedule. Before the switch, it had followed the end of CBS prime time with a half-hour, 11 p.m. newscast in direct competition with WEWS and WKYC. The Fox network ended its prime time at 10 p.m., and WJW moved its news to that time, expanded it to an hour — and, at least at first, added a short news update at 11 p.m. for people still seeking WJW news there.

WOIO, meanwhile, had no newscast at all. Shortly before it affiliated with CBS, it made a joint operating agreement with WUAB, which gave it access to some news resources. (The stations, then owned by separate companies, would eventually have a single owner.) In keeping with other CBS affiliates, WOIO made plans for its own newscasts starting in early 1995.

Then, just days before the affiliation switch, the station hired Denise Dufala away from WJW to establish its news bona fides. WJW soon enough lured Robin Swoboda from San Diego back to Cleveland — meaning that Swoboda replaced the anchor who had replaced her when she left town for a national TV job. But in the long term, WJW may have made an even bigger move as Dufala departed: hiring then-WUAB anchor-reporter Bill Martin.

Nor did the ripples end there. Oh, viewers sorted out which station had The Young and the Restless. But WOIO went through an extended period of figuring out what its news should be — such as having Gretchen Carlson, now with Fox News, as Dufala’s co-anchor from 1996 to 1997 — before settling on its highly competitive 19 Action News approach. WJW, meanwhile, had to find its way from being a staid CBS affiliate to a part of the brasher Fox, and that was sometimes painful as well.

There was no turning back. And now, when we look back, we can see how seismic were the changes that happened in that summer and fall 20 years ago.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog. He is also on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.