August 18, 2003
Keeping Down With The Joneses
According to some sources, an affiliate's news programming can account for as much as 40% (some say even more) of a station's annual revenue. Profitable news operations were what led people to think of a broadcast license as a license to print money in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. For some stations, that printing press still exists. But times are tough and budgets are tighter.
In the good old days, news operations pushed the technological envelope. As an industry, we moved from 16mm television news film to videotape and to live reports carried by satellite phone. In the 1980s, more than one news director saw their competition on the air with a live shot, multiple simultaneous live shots, shots from a helicopter, and their local reporter coming to viewers "live via satellite." In reaction to this management said, "What do we need in order for us to do that (or do that better)?" And the technology got a little nudge forward, and checks were written to companies that we still do business with today (and a number of companies that only exist in our memories and/or on equipment logos in museums).
Back then, stations were keeping up with the Joneses. They have a copter...we'll get a copter. They can do an anchor and remote reporter in a two-shot...we'll get a 3-channel DVE and do an anchor and two reporters for "team coverage." They sent a crew to God knows where...we'll send our crew there as well.
Now we cut. Because bean counters do not associate a news team with news revenue, news directors have been told to make the hard decisions. But those decisions are made in the exact opposite way that NDs made decisions in the heydays. Now we keep down with the Joneses - just like they do in every other industry.
If our competitor makes a cut in a certain area, we feel better about making a cut in that same area. We scale back on the helicopter because they did. We start using one-man bands because they did. We cut back on sending our local reporters to cover a national or international event and rely on a news feed with a face the local viewer has never seen before, because they did. Of course, someone has to be the first in the market to make the cutsÑand those are usually operating cuts, not capital expenditure cuts. In news, some cuts look easy on paperÑnews crews (especially on the weekends), satellite transponder time, travel, etc. But how do those cuts look to your viewers?
Yes, I know that you must cut something. That you have tried to explain to management that the news department is a profit center, not a loss, and actually brings in revenue. But still they want their pound of flesh...and that pound might cost somewhere in the five, six, and even seven figures.
You'll cut. You have to...and it's a shame. Talented people will be laid off, news coverage will suffer, and you'll pray that your ratings don't suffer as well. Meanwhile, all the stations in your market will make the same cuts and bring news down to the lowest common denominator: making more money with less. The problem is that you might be able to make even more money with more.