Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Generation of Local TV Anchors Is Signing Off

Published: November 30, 2008

One of the most familiar voices in Denver is about to sign off for the last time.

In October, three weeks after Ernie Bjorkman, an institution in Colorado television, signed a new annual contract worth close to a quarter of a million dollars, he was told he was being let go by KWGN, the CW affiliate in Denver, a victim of consolidation with another station.

In the self-assured baritone of his profession, Mr. Bjorkman, a 36-year television veteran who will be paid through the end of his contract period, said, “I don’t think we’re going to see the anchor people grow old with the audience anymore.”

Across the country, longtime local TV anchors are a dying breed. Facing an economic slump and a severe advertising downturn, many stations have cut costs drastically in the last year, and veteran anchors, with their expensive contracts, seem to be shouldering a disproportionate share of the cutbacks. When station managers are forced to make cuts, hefty anchor salaries are a tempting target.

In Chicago, the 23-year anchor Diann Burns was laid off from WBBM. In Boston, the renowned sports anchor Bob Lobel was let go by WBZ. In Houston, the 26-year veteran Carolyn Campbell was dismissed from KHOU.

When the anchors depart, they take decades of experience and insight with them. “Basically, you replace someone who knows City Hall with someone who can’t find it,” said John Beard, who lost his job at KTTV last December after 26 years as a news anchor in Los Angeles.

Almost all of the country’s 1,300 television stations with network affiliations have a face, or a pair of faces, that represent their news operations better than any logo or commercial can. Many years after signing off, the larger-than-life characters are still fixtures of newscast lore, like Bill Beutel in New York, Fahey Flynn in Chicago and Ann Bishop in Miami.

While some anchors in top markets can still command million-dollar salaries — like Chuck Scarborough and Sue Simmons on WNBC in New York — the positions are becoming more vulnerable to the market forces that are roiling local TV, analysts say.

“There is certainly an erosion of longtime anchors happening at many stations across the country, for a very simple reason: economics,” said Al Primo, a television news consultant who developed the “Eyewitness News” format in the 1960s and 1970s.

Mr. Primo says anchors’ salaries now seem “out of sync with the reality” of budgets. As stations record lower revenue, managers are trying to adjust anchor salaries accordingly.

“We’ve been aggressive in our cost controls,” said Peter Diaz, the executive vice president of the Belo Corporation, which instituted a companywide wage freeze at its 20 TV stations in mid-November. Although anchors have separate contracts, they have been asked to participate in the freeze, and many have agreed, he said.

Local TV, although it lacks the glamour of the network nightly news or the prestige of print newspapers, remains the most popular single source of news in the United States. Slightly more than half of the population watches local news regularly, according to the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, while only 34 percent read a newspaper each day and 29 percent watch a network evening newscast.

But the ratings for the broadcasts have gradually eroded over the years. The typical late newscast now reaches 12 percent of viewers watching TV in a given market, down from 21 percent 10 years ago.

The news departments are not alone in feeling the squeeze. Advertising is falling sharply, partly because of cutbacks in spending by automakers and car dealerships, which represent the single largest category of advertiser for broadcasters.

Until mid-November, a trade association for stations, the Television Bureau of Advertising, had expected total commercial revenue to be flat compared with 2007. It revised the forecast, however, and predicted a 7.1 percent decline. The group expects a 7 to 11 percent decrease in revenue next year. Already, the financial pressures are trickling down to newsrooms.

“The conditions are as bad as I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been on TV since 1980,” said Rich Rodriguez, who is 54 and has anchored newscasts for 20 years, most recently at KSEE in Fresno, Calif. He was laid off in October. When the station’s general manager asked him to take a 25 percent pay cut, Mr. Rodriguez refused. He was fired the same day his first grandchild was born.

“It’s scary for people over 50,” he said.

Many stations — and viewers — still place a premium on the gravitas that older anchors provide. But confronted by the era of always-available news and information on the Internet, local stations are being forced to rethink their mission.

On the Web, users can assemble their own newscast from an around-the-clock buffet of options, making anchors seem somewhat superfluous, especially to younger viewers. Perhaps as a result, station layoffs are in the news almost every day now, said Tom Petner, who edits the television industry newsletter ShopTalk.

“The industry is moving from star players to more of a team sport,” he said.

News is still a profit center for many local TV owners; it represents about 40 percent of an average station’s revenue. But as that revenue shrinks, local news operations have automated many of their technical operations and spread their staffs ever more thinly.

“There aren’t a lot of bodies left to cut, unless you scale back newscasts,” said Robert Papper, chairman of Hofstra University’s journalism department. After surveying 300 newsrooms last summer, Mr. Papper projected that about 360 local TV news jobs had been lost this year. (That represents only a small fraction of the thousands of journalists laid off by newspapers, though TV news operates with a much smaller base of employees.)

Mr. Papper says longtime anchors at top-rated stations in local markets are at little risk of being laid off. But “if I were a very highly paid anchor of a No. 3 station, I’d be really nervous,” he said.

Looking forward, Mr. Bjorkman, the Colorado newsman, says he doubts that many TV anchors will manage to stay in the same market for decades. He expects more mergers, consolidations and cost-cutting as local news grapples with competition online and on digital channels.

His last day in local TV will be Dec. 31. Presciently, Mr. Bjorkman, 57, started taking veterinary technician classes two years ago, acting on a decades-old dream of working with animals. While Mr. Bjorkman has been performing his veterinary internships, some residents have recognized him, and a few have wondered whether he was working undercover on an investigative reporting assignment.

He has explained to them, this will be his new full-time assignment. He finished his course work in September, two weeks before he found out he would lose his anchor job. “I’m ready to reinvent myself,” he said.

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