Saturday, April 14

What Does it Cost? What's it Worth?

The times, they’ve been a changin’ in broadcasting. Television used to be obscenely profitable. Think about it: millions of viewers, three networks. You do the math. And news was where the TV wars were waged—where the game was played for high stakes—where you anted up and shoved a lot of chips forward on the table. Get big news ratings—get big bucks.

But add cable, satellite, the Internet, videogames; then divide it all up, and TV gets a shrinking share of the growing information/entertainment dollar.

I was lucky enough to get into TV news just as it hit its go-for-broke adolescence. Now it’s in its clip-the-coupons-to-save-ten-cents-on-orange juice senior-citizenhood. Two stories illustrate the before and after.

In the early eighties my boss at WABC in New York, News Director Cliff Abromats, called me into his office and sent me on a mission: ”Find out why we spent $14,000 on hairdresser overtime last quarter.”

WABC had a makeup room with a makeup artist and a hairdresser on hand for talent and guests. The guests were on the old Regis Philbin and Cindy Garvey morning talk show. The talent was Regis, Cindy and their guests—and the news, weather and sports anchors and reporters on “Eyewitness News,” the #1 newscasts in the #1 market in America.

I did my legwork and reported back: “Cliff, Rose Ann Scamardella [the 11:00 p.m. co-anchor] doesn’t like the night-side hairdresser, so she’s been keeping the day-side hairdresser through on OT without telling anyone.”

Cliff’s response? “Well, that explains it. Thanks.”

WABC’s yearly news budget in those days was $27 million. Cliff wanted to make sure the money wasn’t frittered away, and what was 14K if it made an anchor happy?

Fast-forward not quite 20 years. I joined the news staff of WBRE-TV, the Nexstar station in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. On my first day, setting up my office, I went searching for a box of staples. I found one in the supply cabinet in the accounting office.

One box.

For the entire station (actually, for two stations, when you include sister station WYOU).

I was told by an exasperated secretary that no, I couldn’t have the WHOLE BOX!!!!! I was entitled to two strips of staples. But I had to sign for them.

Somewhere in the bowels of WBRE (and believe me, WBRE has deep bowels) there’s a ledger with a line-item that reads, “Two Strips/Staples” with my initials.

This is the same station where a co-worker looking for bulletin board pushpins was told, “We don’t stock pushpins: if we did you’d only use them.”

Now, WABC in the eighties was notoriously extravagant—and Nexstar today is notoriously cheap. But at WABC you felt first class, you felt like a winner, because you were treated like a winner. And we won! I told you our news budget was $27 million. I can't even begin to guess how much money we made! Cliff told me once that the success of our WABC newscasts made a measurable contribution to the overall ABC bolttom line: 1%, 2%, 3% (I forget which) of the entire company profit. I was taken aback, but then I got to thinking: we were churning out millions in profits, just from news. The rate of return return beats the heck out of hiring stars and filming The Love Boat on some Hollywood sound stage.

At one point we made Roger Grimsby America's first $ 1 million-a-year anchor. Know why? Because he was worth it! Research showed he, personally, was a big enough audience draw to make giving him that kind of money a no-brainer. Sort of like A-Rod today: pay the man what he wants!

At WBRE you felt top management always suspected you were a criminal, that you were going to be caught in Public Square at midnight wearing a black trenchcoat and approaching passersby: “Hey, staples, I got staples. Bic pens, you need Bic pens? Scotch tape—tell me how much Scotch tape you need. I got paper clips—all kinds of paper clips.”

Nexstar has a lot of class—but it’s pretty much all third. Do you suppose that’s why WBRE's newscasts are seen by fewer people than some department store security cameras?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

WBRE and Nexstar tosses nickels around like they were manhole covers.

Nexstar doesn't know how low 'BRE is rated because they stopped buying the book in 2002.

They also dropped thier subscripiton to the Associated Press. Too much $$$!

They also have a film library that goes back to 1953 that is in jeopardy because it is stored in boxes in hte basement of a building in a flood plain.

Hairdresser??? Nah. Nexstar trades haircuts for advertising.

Staples??? How the h ell did younnget a stapler in the first place.