Local TV teeters as staff, anchors are axed

As a top anchor in Los Angeles, John Beard worked during the heyday of local TV news — covering earthquakes, riots and the occasional celebrity on the loose.

Beard was a familiar presence on L.A. TV screens for 30 years, via lead anchor roles on KNBC and then KTTV. But three decades after arriving on the West Coast from Buffalo, Beard is back where he started, anchoring a morning newscast in that small western New York community.

Beard had a great run in the nation’s No. 2 market — but his exit is indicative of how local TV news is changing across the country.

If you think local TV news is irrelevant and has long sacrificed real news coverage for flash and trash, just wait until stations have no money to even pretend they’re covering the important stuff.

Despite their obligations as inhabitants of the public airwaves, cash-strapped stations may find it even more difficult to properly inform the public.

Once upon a time, local TV stations were a license to print money — and were frequently the most profitable link in a media conglom’s portfolio.

Those stations’ newscasts were a great business (and continue to generate nearly half a station’s revenue) — even if news purists scoffed at the medium’s time-consuming “happy talk” and focus on sensational crimes and inane human-interest stories.

But stations don’t generate the kind of major profits they once did. And as the biggest expense at most TV outlets, news operations are feeling the pain.

The once-proud operations are slashing costs and, in the process, downsizing news coverage and dumping highly paid and experienced talent.

This aspect of the industry had been facing viewership erosion and the impact of consolidation/cost-cutting when it was smacked hard with a new threat last year: the recession and advertising slowdown.

As local and national spot advertising dries up, profit margins have shrunk to lows not seen by stations in modern times.

In some cases, local TV stations are facing the same problems as local newspapers: fewer advertisers (as department stores vanish and auto dealerships struggle) and dollars shifting to other platforms, like the Internet.

According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2008 was “a difficult one for local television and its newsrooms on almost every front,” and 2009 looks “even grimmer.”

It’s not all gloom and doom: KCBS/KCAL prexy-general manager Patrick McClenahan says he’s encouraged by an uptick in automotive advertising this fall, and has just relaunched his news product with the backing of a major marketing campaign.

But there’s no doubt the local TV news biz is undergoing a massive transition.

First it was consolidation, which in several markets merged or took away some formerly separate news operations. In Los Angeles, for example, seven English-language stations used to maintain newsrooms; after the KCBS-KCAL and KTTV-KCOP mergers, that number has decreased to five.

Some station groups took to combining efforts like weather reports and some news coverage all from one hub — most infamously, Sinclair Broadcast Group’s “News Central” setup, in which viewers in spots like Oklahoma City might not have realized their weathercaster was standing in a Baltimore studio.

Then came the massive cutbacks in some operations across the country. In Los Angeles, KTTV/KCOP recently slashed 100 jobs, cutting its operation to the bone. The Washington Post reported that Fox-owned WTTG may have its anchors operate their own TelePrompTers, via their hands and feet.

Other stations have made do without sportscasters (or sports staffs), and several outlets across the country have cut loose their multimillion-dollar anchors.

As the New York Times noted last year, legendary anchors in Boston, Houston and Denver were axed last year. Earlier this year, Broadcasting & Cable heralded the dawn of the “Post Star Anchor Era” in TV news.

This year, the tally of ex-anchors included L.A. vet Paul Moyers, who was upset enough about the circumstance that he declined to show up in the newsroom to give a proper farewell. (KNBC was forced to send a camera crew to the country club where Moyer was playing golf, in order to extract an on-air sign-off.)

Stations also have increased their use of per-diem staffers, who essentially work for hire, without any benefits.

“The biggest problem as I see it, and I admittedly have a built-in bias,” Beard says, “is that news division cuts disproportionately hit more experienced and higher-paid personnel. That means you lose reporters, anchors and producers who know their craft and know their city.

“You replace people who know City Hall with people who can’t find it,” he says.

In other parts of the country, news operations have folded up altogether or downsized newscasts. A battle is raging in Honolulu, where the owner of the NBC affiliate is taking over operations of the station’s cross-town CBS rival — and will begin simulcasting via just one news operation on both stations.

In markets large and small, stations are using fewer people to shoot, edit and produce news video (as reporters increasingly double as videographers). Gannett’s D.C. outlet WUSA already has replaced news crews with what it calls “multimedia journalists.”

Even engineers are out, replaced by automated computers that control audio and video. (Visitors to a news set might be taken aback by the robotic cameras, as camera operators have long since been replaced by joysticks.)

In another recent change, rivals in markets across the country are banding together to form local news alliances in which they share resources, such as camera crews and helicopters.

In Chicago, for example, Fox’s WFLD, NBC’s WMAQ, Tribune’s WGN and CBS’ WBBM now share resources (while ABC’s WLS decided to keep going it alone).

These partnerships save money, but also mean fewer stations with crews at various news events.

“In some ways that’s not bad: fewer live car chases and fewer needless live shots at a location where something may have happened hours ago,” Beard says. “But it also means news conferences by government, public safety and elected officials will be covered by fewer and less-experienced reporters, and sometimes no reporter at all.”

Adds one news exec: “You’re giving up too much in terms of your ability to determine what the key stories are.”

Some stations are reacting to the challenge by pulling back on newscasts all together. New York’s WNBC caused a stir when it recently dumped its long-running “Live at Five” early evening telecast for a lifestyle-driven feature show.

That’s a shift from recent years, when stations — looking to boost revenues — added newscasts in several dayparts, including early mornings.” 

If all of that isn’t enough, stations are also contending with fewer eyeballs, especially as the broadcast networks deliver smaller auds to their 11 p.m. newscasts.

According to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 52% of the public say they watch local TV news — down from 64% in 1998.

NBC affiliates in particular have been stung this fall; due to its low-rated “Jay Leno Show” lead-in at 10 p.m., Los Angeles’ KNBC has seen its late news drop 25% so far this fall in the adults 25-54 demo (the preferred measurement for local news).

But ABC also struggles at 10 p.m., and in L.A. that’s trickled down to O&O KABC, which has experienced a 17% drop for its 11 p.m. newscasts. The only station to see a gain — third-place KCBS — is up 20%, perhaps in part because of parent CBS’ strong primetime performance.

KCBS has also been helped by a major marketing push for its combined KCBS/KCAL news operation.

“We’ve taken a real proactive approach to what we’re doing with news,” McClenahan says, noting that the duopoly has decided to focus on a hyperlocal newscast (airing reports from more far-flung locales than it has in the past).

McClenahan and KCBS-KCAL news director Nancy Bauer Gonzales tout the fact that, as a duopoly, they have a larger staff to cover major events. KTTV-KCOP went for a different approach, completely eliminating a KCOP news team. That duopoly’s recent major downsize left some wondering how it could still run a functional newsroom.

“I wonder how deep these cuts have to go until the FCC begins to take a real look at broadcast license challenges for failure to fulfill ‘community service’ obligations,” one TV news vet says.

Some news observers also fear that stations, in an effort to increase declining revenues, will continue to sell newscast segments to sponsors (a practice that is already on the rise, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism).

McClenahan says he believes the biggest challenge facing local news operations is their method of distribution as stations figure out the best way to stream to PDAs and phones, not to mention how to properly utilize websites and digital subchannels. (NBC’s owned stations, for example, have de-emphasized news content in favor of lifestyle coverage on their local sites.)

“The content is the priority,” McClenahan says. “There still has to be an emphasis on quality talent, quality reports. We’re always going to need talented people in every level of putting the product on the air. There have certainly been ramifications from a down market. But we’re positive the market is going to come back.”

Beard, for one, is worried that local TV news has “worked hard to lose the public trust” over the years, spending too much time using its limited resources to cover inconsequential news. And he believes the industry “will get worse before it gets better.”

But speaking from his new job in Buffalo, the long-time anchor says he still believes local TV news can be relevant.

“I’ve always said if any station in L.A. would commit themselves to producing a professional product and would assemble a topnotch team of veterans to do it, they’d be No. 1 in short order, and might force the competition to follow suit,” he says. “But then I’ve always been an optimist.”

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