Saturday, April 14

The Gorilla of Local News

It’s trite but true. Every TV station out there really would like to be a part of your life—a member of your family—a trusted friend. OK, it’s not altruism at work, it’s completely selfish. If you love us you'll watch us, if you watch us we can charge advertisers more, if we can charge more we can make more. And making more money is probably a good thing.

I don’t know if in these modern days of fragmented media it still holds true, but years ago I read research that showed that people had, mentally, a “home” station. In their minds they had a station that was theirs. And when they switched the dial, they weren’t going to some other station, they were leaving home. I worked for a time in the early 70s for KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh—the dominant #1 station in town—where that was true. KDKA was everyone’s home station, a part of the fabric of everyone’s life. The anchors, led by Bill Burns, were more than friends, they were family members.

When you’re that powerful you can take chances—even poke fun at yourself—because you’re so loved and so respected.

KDKA produced a promotional poster way back when that I’d give anything to have a copy of today.

Picture this. 99% of the poster is blood red. It’s the scene in the original 1933 “King Kong” where the giant ape breaks through the gate and is just about to storm the native village. Every single human being in the village is fleeing—running straight towards us, away from Kong. Actually, every single human being but one. Down in a lower corner of poster is the only person facing Kong. He’s the only thing in black and white. He’s holding a CP-16 TV news film camera. Next to him, in tiny letters, it says, “Details on Eyewitness News Tonight at 6:00 and 11:00.”


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?