The announcement reverberated through the industry just a few weeks ago. ABC News was slashing 350 jobs across the country, a full 25 percent of its staff. The cuts were across the board–correspondents, producers, production personnel, and technical staff. The ABC layoffs were both a continuation of a trend and a harbinger of the tough times ahead for broadcast journalists.
The ABC cuts follow CBS’S staff reductions last year. Over at NBC News, layoffs have been ongoing ever since GE took control back in the late 1980s. The Peacock Network’s approach has been more of a slow ‘death by a thousand cuts’ rather than a scorched earth policy. NBC’s layoffs draw less publicity, but the effects are still the same. I can speak personally to those NBC-GE days; our Southwest bureau in Houston was shutdown, eliminating seven out of ten jobs.
At local television stations the cutbacks have been equally brutal. Pleading poverty, the stations are terminating long term employees on both sides of the camera. Obviously, the changing media landscape and the deep recession are giving management the excuse to do something it has been longing to do for decades—get rid of news.
To understand what is happening you have to understand a little history. A license to operate a television station is a license to print money. The Federal Communications Commission grants those licenses to a select few who are then allowed to compete in an oligopoly. Imagine owning a supermarket in say, Dallas, and having to compete against only five other grocery stores. Back in the heyday of over-the-air broadcasting, it wasn’t uncommon for a station to surpass a 50% profit margin.
I was raised in the business by the first generation of broadcasters who had a healthy respect and fear of the FCC. In exchange for a lucrative license, they had to perform public service for the community. Newscasts were part of the package.
But news always has been a drain on stations and networks, and the FCC is not quite the powerful regulatory body it once was. I’m not saying the FCC is toothless, but the commission is well on its way to needing dentures. The time is now ripe for television stations and networks to tank news departments while the FCC looks the other way. Public service be damned! They can both blame the changing times and the economy.
Because of competition from cable, satellite TV and the Internet, over the air broadcasting revenues are certainly declining but money is still being made. So the simple solution to regaining those high profit margins is to cut news personnel, portable uplinks, microwave trucks, helicopters, travel, and news coverage in general.
Cable television has actually seen its audiences and its revenues increase these past few years. There is also a growing viewer taste for reality programming. Flick to Investigative Discovery you’ll see programming similar to Dateline. I produced and wrote for a Discovery program that was nothing but a cheaper version of a news magazine show.
If you glance through the program schedules on any night you’ll see non-fiction cable programs on prison guards, border agents, truckers, loggers, fishermen, and cops. That’s not counting shows on survivalists, celebrities, and bored housewives. The possibilities seem endless. But to make any of the programs play you need good storytelling…and that’s what we do best.
There should be a bumper sticker that says something to the effect, “Broadcast Journalists Do It Better”. We’ve been trained in the fast paced world of news where stories are turned on a dime, sometimes for a dime. We are multi-taskers who accomplish a lot with very little and in record time. Producing quasi-documentaries or reality program is often easier than producing a daily newscast or filing a story on the fly.
I’ve been fortunate in my career to work in various styles of news with a multitude of domestic and foreign clients. All that experience has led me to my current job as supervising producer for one of the oldest non-fiction reality based programs.
At America’s Most Wanted on FOX-TV, I use all my newsroom skills plus a few I never knew I had. AMW is a unique program, but at the end of the day it’s all about the journalism and storytelling, which is an excellent starting point for any non-fiction show.
I don’t know what form broadcast journalism will take in the next decade or whether it will survive on the airways. As for the Internet, though it holds tremendous promise for all types of journalism, it will take years for entrepreneurs to develop a profitable business model. For the foreseeable future, cable networks offer broadcast journalist an opportunity to ply our trade while at the same time moving us closer to our roots.