Network gambles on radical new strategy

At one of the media world’s most potent addresses, 30 Rockefeller Center, a radical makeover is under way just down the hall from “Today” and “Saturday Night Live.”

The stem-to-stern transformation of WNBC, the Peacock’s flagship O&O, aims to turn it from just another local affil to a “content center” reaching websites, taxis, grocery stores — even hospital delivery rooms.

The $15 million project entails not just a physical renovation and tech upgrade but a massive exodus of veteran (read: pricey) staffers, with just a handful staying onboard as of Jan. 1. Battered by the economy, NBC Universal parent GE, not to mention station owners such as News Corp., Tribune and Sinclair, are watching closely to see if Gotham will provide a survival guide for local news.

Union leaders and media watchdogs, meanwhile, characterize the change as a lawless, dehumanizing assault on journalistic tradition. And those clinging to jobs describe a bizarre scene with vets on one side of the newsroom and relative tyros on the other, with nary a word being exchanged.

“They don’t call Cheez-Whiz ‘cheese’ on the package; they call it a ‘cheese product’,” said one survivor. “What’s going to be produced here isn’t really news. It’s a news product. And you have to wonder what will happen when a major story breaks and you have someone from a small market who was cheap enough to hire.”

Two changes in particular have made heads spin — one is the systematic retraining of the staff. The other is a pool arrangement with Fox whereby the routine day-to-day events (e.g., a mayoral news conference) will be handled by one station and shared with the other. The cost-cutting plan was announced by NBC for some major markets, beginning with a January tryout in Philadelphia.

The pool deal portends fewer unique stories and a loss of the competitive stakes that drive most TV journos. The retraining is more drastic — seasoned, Emmy-winning cameramen and writers are now out in the field reporting or writing, and vice versa. Crews no longer pile into satellite trucks to chase a police shooting in Queens. A single “content producer” grabs a high-end camcorder and a notepad and heads to the scene.

WNBC is used to setting trends of a different variety. For more than a decade, beginning in the late 1970s and through the 1980s, it served as a high-toned farm system for the networks, birthing a lifestyle-infused genre with “Live at Five.” Alums include “Today” co-host Matt Lauer, CNN’s Jack Cafferty and onetime “20/20″ co-anchor John Miller.

Two mainstays remain amid the construction rubble: Chuck Scarborough and Sue Simmons, the city’s longest-running co-anchor duo. Ensconced with long-term deals, they have not been unseated despite the station’s overall ratings decline (though station insiders say Simmons has rebuffed several buyout offers).

Since Nov. 17, Scarborough and Simmons(who still get occasional on-air ribbing by former 30 Rock neighbor David Letterman) have been perched on a sleek new set. The cosmetic change pales next to the upheaval that began in the spring when WNBC execs announced that its newsroom would be remade.

Over the summer, many of the station’s off-mic employees were told that their positions were being eliminated but that they could apply to be part of a new team of “content producers” feeding the main station as well as a planned 24/7 digital channel.

As the makeover progresses, WNBC continues to languish in the ratings cellar. It averaged a paltry 17,000 viewers at 5 p.m. in October, compared with 38,000 at Fox’s WNYW, 71,000 at WCBS and 126,000 at WABC. At 6, it garnered an anemic 28,000 demo viewers as opposed to the 41,000, 58,000 and 133,000 of its respective rivals.

Then, of course, came the collapsing economy. According to Jeff Logsdon, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets Equity Research Group, local TV is “the first to feel (a recession) and the last to recover from it.”

Ed McEwan, Local 11 prexy of the National Assn. of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, which has represented the station’s cameramen, writers and editors, believes that NBC’s Washington, D.C., outlet, WRC, will soon morph into a “content center.” A WNBC rep confirms it’s “certainly a model that’s being evaluated for our other stations.”

“We have the opportunity to evolve into a very dynamic channel,” said the station’s prexy and general manager, Tom O’Brien. “We’re making a $15 million investment in technology that will simplify the workflow.” As a result, “some jobs may not exist in their current form and the new jobs will be aligned to the way we need to produce multimedia content.”

But where O’Brien sees streamlining and modernizing, others see less salient motives. “It’s partly union busting and it’s partly done for financial reasons,” McEwan said of the overhaul, noting that NABET has filed six labor grievances since June, all of which have been settled.

Originally, WNBC announced that the content producers would not be union jobs and that existing employees would have to give up their memberships in order to apply for the new positions. In late October a deal was struck to allow those workers to keep them. The content producer ranks now include union and nonunion employees, and are salaried positions.

In addition, daily hires — freelance unionized personnel, many of whom worked full-time hours — have been eliminated.

“The amazing thing is that they want to get rid of all this high-priced talent and they’re cutting back on everything, but we are just down the hall from ‘Today,’ the ultimate cash cow. So while we can’t even get coffee anymore, they’re setting up these elaborate catered breakfasts down there.”

O’Brien wouldn’t comment on prospective budget savings or staff cuts that will result from the changes. One former staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity (released personnel were required to sign a pledge not to sue the station or speak to the media) said management’s moves are doomed to result in a skeleton crew charged with creating a generic, inferior product.

“It’s a miserable place to be,” said the staffer, who claimed that a shrinking stable of professional cameramen has made it increasingly difficult to find a crew for on-the-street segments. “The people who are staying are saying, ‘Oh my god, who’s left to do the work?’ ”

The staffer alleged that, despite that reality, “Making the 5 and 6 o’clock newscasts is irrelevant to these changes.”

McEwan agreed. “They’ve decided that they’re really not interested in quality … they just want to put something on to fill the airtime.”

O’Brien admitted that the round-the-clock cable channel is “not news-focused” and will emphasize lifestyle coverage, much of which will come from the LX.TV production shingle, which was acquired by NBC Local Media in January. Nevertheless, he insisted that the over-the-air coverage “won’t get softer.”

McEwan and the former WNBC staffer claimed that the station has let go many longtime, highly paid staffers while hiring younger people willing to work for less. O’Brien denied the charge, saying “We have the best of both worlds — experienced talent that viewers embrace as well as (employees) who embrace change.”

Former executive Al Primo, who pioneered WABC’s “Eyewitness News” format in 1968, however, is skeptical: “They should not lose sight of what made ‘Eyewitness’ successful, which was a lot of original reporting, a lot of people-to-people coverage, and the things that require reporters to get out and talk to the newsmakers themselves.” Now, Primo groused, “they’re going to send in some kid with a minicam.”

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