By Meagan Racey / Photo by Nikki Villoria
Scott Broom, a traditional “coat-and-tie” television reporter, would do anything to avoid the pink slip. So when he heard rumors of layoffs, Broom decided to reinvent himself. He now works for WUSA in Washington, D.C., writing, shooting, editing and uploading news reports.
This is the reality facing television journalists and their stations across the nation: adapt or go black.
The economic crunch, technology expansion and changing viewer habits are forcing stations to cut costs and find the most creative revenue-boosting strategies. For some stations, digital and automation technologies have blended traditional news-gathering and production teams into one-man bands. For others, generating more local content on multiple platforms is key to stimulating revenue.
– WRAL in Raleigh, N.C., began the year with salary cuts and a voluntary severance program. The station’s owner, Capitol Broadcasting Co., is cutting operating costs by 15 percent, which may lead to layoffs. The station is reducing travel, overtime, satellite time purchases and cell phone and printing costs, said Steve Hammel, vice president and general manager.
Training and hiring multimedia journalists
– NBC-4 in Washington, D.C., recently created positions for content producers to produce news and footage for all platforms, including television, Web sites and mobile devices. The positions of writer, editor and technician will be merged to create content producers.
– WUSA in Washington, D.C., has similarly blurred position distinctions by downsizing its staff to digital correspondents and anchors. Digital correspondents produce and write their own stories. Handheld and tripod-mounted cameras, laptop editing programs and the Internet have made full news teams unnecessary.
Utilizing new technologies
– KVVU in Las Vegas created an automated control room in July that drastically cut technical production for its newscasts. The system automates activities such as setting camera angles and shots, said Darrin McDonald, vice president and general manager. The new system cost between half a million and $1 million, but savings will quickly offset those costs, McDonald said.
KSTC in Minneapolis recently became the exclusive broadcaster of all state high school sports tournaments, said station manager Susan Wenz. This fall, the station will add live online feeds for four new sports, Wenz said. High school students will produce the feeds, saving the station money and generating community involvement.
Local TV revenue declined 6.6 percent in 2008, to $20.1 billion, despite increases in political candidate spending, typically a major revenue source, according to BIA Advisory Services of Chantilly, Va. The national media consulting firm projects 2009 revenue will be $16.6 billion—a 17.3 percent decrease from 2008 and a return to a level not seen since 1995. Television news shed 1,200 jobs, or 4.3 percent of jobs in 2008, according to a survey conducted by the Radio-Television News Directors Association and Hofstra University.
Steve Hammel, vice president and general manager of WRAL in Raleigh, N.C, said the decline in automotive advertising had the biggest impact on television stations. Auto advertising is typically the source of the majority of television revenue, but for the first quarter of 2009, Verizon Communications and General Mills were top spenders, according to an analysis of TNS Media Intelligence/CMR data by the Television Bureau of Advertising.
A report by Bernstein Research states that auto advertising on TV stations dropped by $903 million in 2008. Auto advertising declined overall by $1.1 billion, or 29 percent, in the first quarter of 2009, with TV stations bearing 41 percent of those cuts.
As viewers are faced with growing numbers of channels, news shows and news Web sites, advertisers looking for higher audience numbers have turned to other options that frequently exclude television.
Several television companies have filed for bankruptcy, including Ion Media Networks, which owns stations in 39 of the top 50 U.S. markets; Young Broadcasting, Inc., the parent company for WKRN Nashville and WATE Knoxville; and Tribune Co., which owns KTLA in Los Angeles.
Mark Fratrik, BIA vice president, said TV stations will become profitable the faster they see themselves as local information, marketing and entertainment companies rather than simply television transmitters.
“Broadcasts have advantages in local markets,” Fratrik said. “First of all, they have the infrastructure to generate and add local programming, the ability to cross digital platforms and the sales staff on ground that know the local advertisers and can say, ‘OK, if you don’t want to advertise on local television, maybe you’ll advertise in a different way.’ ”
“We believe the only way forward is to create more and better content, which can only be done by putting resources against training our staff to make full use of the new technologies,” said Allan Horlick, WUSA president and general manager. “This is very much a cooperative process and we are already seeing the benefits of these efforts.”
Broom of WUSA said that multimedia journalists can improve, but also damage news report quality. When working alone and with relatively little equipment, Broom said he’s more nimble.
“But there’s no doubt that when you’re shooting, driving and filing an Internet story, clipping art to the Internet story and producing your own graphics for television, that a lot of your day that was once spent with journalism with a capital ‘J’ has been eaten up.”