Friday, August 7

To Serve and Protect

16 on 16

WNEP is adding yet another half-hour local newscast (it's 16th) to its weekday lineup, at four in the afternoon. Sixteen half-hours of news a day!

You know the old police motto, "To Protect and Serve"? I think this is all about serving and protecting. Yeah, it's about serving the viewers, but that's its secondary purpose. It's really much, much more about protecting jobs. And since I'm for jobs, and for broadcasting, I salute the station and its managers.

So as of September 8th, the Newswatch 16 lineup will include local half-hours at 5:00 a.m., 5:30, 6:00, 6:30, 12:00 p.m., 4:00, 5:00, 5:30, 6:00, 7:00, 10:00 (on WOLF, the FOX affiliate), and 11:00 p.m. That's still not counting the four half-hour live newscasts produced specifically for and aired on WNEP-2, the station's cable and Internet channel from 7:00-9:00 a.m. each weekday morning.

Do we really need all that news? C'mon, fess up: the audience doesn't. WNEP does ... as a way to justify it's (relatively) expensive news operation.

What can I tell you. Up until the Internet came along, there were two ways to make more money in broadcasting: charge more for your commercial minutes or find more commercial minutes!

Actually, I'm old enough to remember when stations did both! Coming out of the 60s, when NBC stations (the leaders) signed off at 1:00 a.m. after the Tonight show and signed on again at 7:00 a.m. for the Today show, it was easy to find more minutes. Simply run old movies overnight. Or repeat the 11:00 p.m. news at 1:00 a.m.. Or (and this was the brilliant part) put on your own local newscast at 6:30 a.m.! Then, in the 70s, as news gained in popularity it was easy to charge more because you were delivering more "eyeballs" to advertisers.

Found money!

These days with stations programmed 24/7 and audiences shrinking it's tough to find more minutes or charge more for them. The Internet may be what they call a "revenue stream" someday. It doesn't seem to be there yet.

What do you say when the corporate bosses come around asking for budget cuts in every department, asking you to reduce your "head count"? You say, "Wait ... we need every single 'body' in the News Department ... because ... uh ... we're starting another newscast! Yeah ... that's the ticket ... another newscast."

So you take your news and production budgets and spread them over more newscasts, and subtract the savings for the syndicated program you now won't be buying to fill the slot, and voila! Corporate goes away happy.

When I became WNEP's news director in 1983, the station was airing news at 6:30 a.m., 12 Noon, 6:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. I desperately wanted to add another dinnertime half-hour: 5:00 or 5:30.

I made my case ... repeatedly ... to GM Elden Hale. Finally he said to me, "What kind of additional staff would you be talking about?"

"Well, we do four half-hours a day with a staff of 50. I think I could add another half-hour with just twelve more people."

If you know Elden, you know he's not one to bust a gut laughing. He's not a knee-slapping, fall-on-the-floor-in-hysterics kind of guy. But this time he came close to doing one of those Laurel & Hardy spit-takes with his coffee.

In the end I got what I really hoped for in the first place which was, if I remember, a staff increase of 5 or 6 people.

I think over the years the WNEP staff grew to more than 60 ... maybe even 70 ... but I think it's down again. Of course, I don't know how many people are involved in the web site. I also know that computers and advanced electronics and "one-man bands" have made news gathering more efficient. But I don't care how many people on your staff, you're spreading them pretty thin (if you ask me) to produce eight hours of news programming a day. That's more than a 400% increase in news product in the last 25 years!

Of course, it's the same everywhere. I came to WNEP straight from WABC in New York. when I left we were producing 2 1/2 hours of news a day with a staff of 245 (including 22 two-person video crews, 11 of them in live trucks)! Today they're still #1, but doing way more with way less.

The trick is repeat, repeat, repeat! I've said here before that less news ... less real news ... is being covered in this market than at any time I can remember. Hey, I love spot news as much as the next guy (OK, maybe more). But do we have to cover every single fender bender and every single vacant house fire? I said in an earlier post, that's not reporting that's covering.

I'm sure everyone feels ridden hard and pout away wet these days, especially when you add in the demands of the Internet presence.

I remember, though, that way back when I thought we were stretching Chief Meteorologist Tom Clark pretty thin by having him do so many weathercasts. Does today's announcement mean he'll appear in six half-hours broadcasts a day? And Joe Snedeker shows up multiple times in eight half-hours?

More work ... the same (or fewer) people. That's the troubling "media math" in 2009.

News Director Erik Schrader is quoted in the paper as saying WNEP is just responding to viewer requests. Never met the man, but I say ... without fear of contradiction ... well spun, Erik, well spun!