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Farmed out sports could be next for TV news

A recent industry report predicted that total consumer spending on pay television, broadband and mobile services could be cut by $5 billion in the next year alone, and ad dollars have been reduced dramatically since the last quarter of 2008.

Although most TV stations will deny it, such cuts in revenue is leading to a decline in the quality of programming, including sports. Many stations have already cut their staff to the bone. Now under consideration are radical measures like farming out local sports news coverage to third parties.

Most sports footage on television these days looks the same, regardless of the station or network. That’s because, in many cases, they come from the same source. The game footage is the same, highlights vary only by editing and interviews — though slightly different — pretty much say the same thing.

There are reports that some stations are now in discussions to have their sports coverage produced elsewhere — perhaps a main hub of an independent station group. There’s talk that a Chicago station might use Comcast SportsNet to produce and deliver the sports segment of its local news. While no station has publicly made such a move yet, it’s clear that the current economics could make it a necessity.

TV executives are trying to determine whether such an arrangement would work. First, it would have to get the approval of the unions. Then, it would have to pass muster with the audience. Is the loss of identity and control of the station’s signature content worth it? That’s hard to tell.

What’s definitely known is that declining revenues, fractured audiences and the continuing need to reduce costs have media executives cornered. Partnerships, content sharing and outsourcing are all actively being considered.

Some resource sharing is already underway. Though its launch has yet to be announced, there’s a job opening for a managing editor for the Local News Service (LNS) in Chicago. LNS is the joint video service owned by WMAQ, NBC’s Channel 5, and WFLD, FOX’s Channel 32.

LNS is modeled on an experimental program involving NBC and FOX’s TV stations in Philadelphia. The stations pool resources to share raw video of events such as fires, crime stories and news conferences that participants can edit and use as they see fit.

“By allowing us to save on duplicate expenditures, we can be even more competitive with NBC and other stations through signature pieces and investigative reporting,” said Jack Abernethy, CEO of FOX Television Stations.

It will be interesting to observe how LNS actually works in the real world. If the video is only of routine, non-proprietary stories, audiences may not be able to tell much difference. The stations, in fact, hope LNS will remain invisible to home viewers.

However, as cost pressure continues to bear down on station executives, it would be easy for LNS to turn into a way for member stations to reduce newsroom personnel and other staff. If this happens, it might become easy for viewers to see even more “sameness” in Chicago’s TV news.

Because sports coverage shares so much common material, it may be a first target for broadcasters attempting to make programming cuts. The question is, with so many ways to get sports scores and highlights these days, will the audience still care?