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Local Sports: Key Component of Staying Local and Relevant? Or First to Throw Overboard? (Both?)

Lets Go to the Videotape!

"Let's Go to the Videotape!"

Of all the things that have stayed with me about growing up watching local TV news, two things stand out: the evolution of WCBS/NY’s “2” logo over the years, and the time I got to sit in Warner Wolf’s chair on the Channel 2 News set.  As a kid in Connecticut watching New York news, I won’t ever forget Beutel and Grimsby and the Cool Hand Luke music;  I won’t forget Jim Jensen, Chuck or Sue.  But for some reason, it’s Warner Wolf who I think was the first true “character” that made watching the 6 o’clock news something I would actually talk about at school the next day, what with his trademark style and “let’s go to the videotape!”

Today, there aren’t many wise young sportscasters expecting to be Warner Wolf one day.  Sure, you don’t “go to the videotape” anymore, but more importantly, sports has become the go-to source for deep-sixing talent and freeing up cash at struggling stations from coast to coast. WCBS, Wolf’s old station and the one I watched as a kid, (Anybody remember “NewsBreaker Territory?”) recently fired its main sports anchor, Ducis Rogers, and the morning guy, John Discepolo.  Sports, struggling for air time, is down to one lone anchor/reporter.

New York still has Len Berman, but many markets may do away with local sports altogether. Managers claim there’s no need, since true sports fans get their info from ESPN, or regional sports nets.  As Stacey Brown writes in the Scranton Times-Tribune, “Nightly sports reporting and local news appear to be headed for a divorce.”  

WOLF/Scrantons FOX 56

WOLF/Scranton's FOX 56

“It is a shame you don’t see more local sports during the newscasts,” Jon Cadman told Brown.  Cadman’s GM at (ah, irony) WOLF-TV in Scranton.  He says costs are just too high, and something’s gotta give.  So forget about seeing your kid’s high school touchdown run on Channel 16.  Maybe it’ll make SportsCenter.

In my own newsroom yesterday, as the sports folk were busy writing scripts, producing their ever-shrinking six o’clock sportscast, I heard the bellowing boom of the Asst. News Director:  “Sports is dead!”  It happens a lot.  And as a newsguy, I get it–to a point.  When news breaks, you’d expect weather and sports to give.  But in this environment of cutbacks and layoffs, is killing sports altogether the next step?  And does that, in a sense, take away one more thing that sets local news apart?  

I’ve worked in some sports-crazy cities, especially in the South, and let me tell you, there’s hardly a bond as strong as that between sports fan and sports talent.  When they show up at the high school football game on a Friday night, that’s the kind of thing that earns viewer loyalty. (Remember the Friday night football shows where sportsteams would actually use the station helicopter to fly around to as many games as possible?  Bringing not only a camera to get the game on TV that night, but the chopper to fly the colors in front of a packed stadium:  “Wow, Channel 5 ROCKS!”)

But even in small town Scranton, sports is on life support.  And in big city, sports-crazed New York, calling it a sports “department” seems like a bit of a stretch.  Are we turning away viewers to save a few dollars?  Or do the viewers really not care anymore–have they truly moved on?

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Latest Layoffs: WNEP Grounds Chopper, Cuts Pilot

John Ruland and Skycam 16 in an Early WNEP Promotional Photo

John Ruland and Skycam 16 in an Early WNEP Promotional Photo

WNEP/Scranton is officially out of the high speed chase business.  Next time a goofball in a stolen car decides to make a run for it and delight producers at MSNBC, Skycam 16 will sit it out.  “In today’s economy, the helicopter has become a luxury we can’t afford,” WNEP GM Chuck Morgan told the Times-Tribune.

The station didn’t say how much it’ll save by cutting Skycam 16 and laying off pilot Randy Freeman, but the Times-Tribune reports the cost-cutting leaves WNEP without one of its biggest and most enduring promotional draws:  “Skycam 16 made its debut in 1984 and quickly became WNEP’s most recognizable symbol. The helicopter is often flashed across the screen at the opening of the station’s news broadcasts. A photo of Skycam 16 appears at the top of the WNEP Web site.”

WNEP’s decision to surrender the skies follows a rash of bigger-market chopper sharing arrangements also aimed at saving money.  Local newsers who work in the air, already a pretty small bunch to begin with, admit the cuts have them watching their backs.  “It’s getting scary,” one told us.

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