After a couple of bumpy years, the local TV news business is growing again, according to new research from Hofstra’s Bob Papper and RTDNA. The average network affiliate now airs more than five and a half hours of local news a day, and there’s every reason to believe that the air time devoted to news is still growing. In just the past few weeks, stations in Houston, Boston, Wichita and Ft. Wayne have announced new or expanded newscasts. In many cases, stations adding news are slotting it in where Oprah used to air, so they’re likely to be saving money at the same time. That’s going to add to a bottom line that was already much healthier in 2010 than the year before.
As stations continue to add newscasts, they’re finally adding people too.
Stations added 750 jobs last year, recovering all the losses of 2009 (400 jobs lost) and making a dent in the 1,200 jobs lost in 2008. In fact, the survey found that anticipated hiring in 2011 could bring the industry back to its pre-crash peak by the start of 2012.
That’s great news all around, not just for new or unemployed journalists looking for work. Anchors in smaller markets who might have moved on sooner had the economy been better are now being hired in bigger markets.
But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. of course. Highly-paid veterans are still being dumped. Case in point: Marianne Banister, who was let go last week by WBAL in Baltimore after 15 years as co-anchor of the late news. “I want to make this clear,” she told the Baltimore Sun. “This is not my choice. I’m not retiring. I’m not leaving to ‘spend more time with my family.’” The station says she won’t be replaced; it’s going with a solo anchor at 11. And that’s a trend we may see more of, says Papper.
One of the models may be WPVI, the ABC station in Philadelphia. It is very much the dominant station and has been solo anchor at 6 and 11 for at least a year or two. It was solo anchor at 11 p.m. for years, but I was astonished to see it go solo at 6 and 11 — and they are still on top. So the message is very clear.
Another clear message is that local TV sports time is shrinking. Highly-paid sports anchors may be an endangered species. Two have stepped down in DC in the past few weeks and Baltimore’s WBFF is dumping a stand-alone sports segment. Another Baltimore station, WMAR, let its veteran sports anchor go a few years ago and has watched other stations follow suit. As general manager Bill Hooper told the Sun, “They’re not firing people, but when the contract comes up, they say, ‘OK, this is a high-priced guy and we’re only giving him a minute and half at the end of the newscast, so what are we doing here anyway?”’
What’s growing, according to the latest survey, is cooperation in news gathering, which is more widespread than ever. The survey asks if stations share information, a helicopter or pool video, and in every case the numbers more than doubled from 2009 to 2010.
Fully three-quarters of the stations surveyed said they now share information with another news outlet–either a TV or radio station or a newspaper. That compares to just a third the year before. A third now say they share pool video, compared to 15% the year before. And 10% share a helicopter, compared to 4% the year before. That’s a dramatic increase in every category.
But Papper isn’t willing to predict that sharing is here to stay. “Cooperative ventures rose substantially during the severe economic downtown in the last few years,” he says. “It will be interesting to see if a reviving economy and revenue growth leads to fewer cooperative arrangements.”