A certain unease underlines the Radio & Television News Directors Assn. 50th annual powwow in the Big Easy.

These may be flush times for the news business, marked by attendance here that was up more than 25% from last year. However, against the backdrop of ownership changes at three of the powerful news organizations – ABC, CBS and Turner Broadcasting – not to mention the affiliation switches that already have rocked the country, this RTNDA confab has served as a harbinger of coming turmoil in the business of newsgathering.

“It’s like we’re a bunch of Neros fiddling, while Rome burns,” says a veteran major market news director. “The money is coming in now, so we’re in a state of denial. We’re not facing up to the fact that with all the consolidation in the business, there will inevitably be cutbacks and bottom-line decisions that affect how we cover the news.”

The tenor of the convention was struck by the opening-night Edward R. Murrow address, given by NBC News president Andrew Lack, who charged that TV news, with its increasing obsession with the salacious story of the moment, was “wittingly or unwittingly contributing to the dumbing-down of America.”

Style for substance

Lack said the key to the problem is that TV journos are trading style for substance.

While Lack’s comments were hardly a news flash, his analysis was backed up by what went on everywhere, from the closed-door sessions networks held with their fails, to forums on topics ranging from investigative reporting to coping with affiliation switches, which were notable for the dearth of tough questions being asked.

“News directors, like a lot of us in this business, are so caught up by competitive factors,” says ABC’s World News Tonight anchor Peter Jennings, “that it’s difficult to have the time to consider what all the consolidation will mean.” The veteran Jennings was on hand in the Crescent City to receive the RTNDA’s Paul White Award.

Lack of time to consider the tough questions – or lack of practise in asking – was apparent in sessions the net news divisions had with their affils. At ABC there may have been a mild complaint about a dip in the ratings at “Good Morning America,” while CBS fielded gripes about its last-place ayem news show and evening newscast. But the tone was much kinder and gentler than sessions of years past.

The networks all received high marks from news directors for upgrading the services they provide, leaving news division webheads relieved, even elated.

“We had the most upbeat meeting we’ve probably had in years,” said Don Dunphy, vice president, affiliate news services, at ABC News. He echoes the sentiments of his Big Three counterparts. “After the last 18 months, with all the affiliate switches, we know now more than ever how important our distribution system is,” Dunphy added.

Meanwhile, ABC News brass were somewhat surprised as well as relieved at its controversial settlement with Phillip Morris concerning a “Day One” report alleging unsavory practices by the tobacco industry. The cigarette manufacturer has used the settlement’s apology to embarrass the network in an ad campaign.

Perhaps what’s happening is that news brass simply are overwhelmed by the changes that have occurred. At one session, titled “Affiliate Switches: Rewriting the Script on Content and Marketing,” news directors and general managers spoke about how difficult it has been to keep up with the upheaval of the past 18 months.

“After our station had been a CBS affiliate for 42 years, I had 90 days to make the switch to Fox,” said Virgil Dominic, president and general manager of WJW Cleveland. “In that period I went from three and a half hours of local news to seven hours and had to hire 50 people.”

Other panelists told similar stories, noting how tough the day-to-day has become. A robust economy, coupled with more than $200 million in compensation money paid to stations in the wake of all the affil switches, has made coping with the news explosion easier, but it hasn’t left time to consider much else.

On hand to moderate a convention forum dubbed “Managing Change,” was veteran news consultant Al Primo, who invented the ubiquitous Action News format.

“These guys are working at breakneck speed to just keep up with the day-to-day changes,” Primo says.

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