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SlimeWatch, Part 2: NBC Loves Local. NBC Affiliates? Not So Much.

Jeff Zucker:  Planning to Go Local With You or Without You?

Jeff Zucker: Planning to Go Local With You or Without You?

Lukewarm is really never a good thing.

Not for soup, not for bathwater, and definitely not as an answer when someone’s asked to evaluate the earnings potential of the business you work in. And yet, for us, right now, that’s what we’ve got.  The headline on televisionbroadcast.com:  Analyst is Lukewarm on the Future of Local News.

Rich Greenfield of Pali Capital, a financial services firm that advises clients worldwide on markets and business sectors, thinks Local TV’s not as bad off as radio and newspapers, but it’s not quite healthy, either:  “We believe the local TV business is in secular decline,” Greenfield writes on his blog.  “While revenues/profits may bounce whenever the economy recovers, we have a hard time believing that local news, weather, traffic and sports at 7 a.m./5 p.m./ 6 p.m./11 p.m. can sustain viewership levels, and in turn, advertiser interest over the next several years.”

I’m not a financial analyst, Wall Street guru, or Financial Times subscriber.  But I do know this: if your advertiser-supported business cannot “sustain advertiser interest,” you have a serious problem.  And, as I’ve been arguing here, I believe Local TV has an Everything-Must-Change problem.  The thing is, I don’t sense that most companies that own television stations have much interest in changing.

Or maybe they simply don’t know how to change.  The problem is, other companies are already working on that, and they will not share the fruits of their efforts with local stations when their new model becomes profitable.  And NBC may be one of those companies.  (Don’t feel relieved just yet, NBC affiliates, you might not be invited to the peacock’s party–in your own town)

Here’s NBC’s affiliate relations chief, John Eck, talking last month to TVNewsday about building deeper, stronger ties between the network and its affiliates:  “We invited all affiliates — whether our agreement is expiring this year or several years down the road — to talk about how we could modify the existing arrangements so that we could participate on more platforms together.”

The Bird:  Bullish on Local, Just Not Necessarily Local Stations

The Bird: Bullish on Local, Just Not Necessarily Local Stations

And then there was the big, bold, rah-rah smack on the affiliates’ lips from NBCU CEO Jeff Zucker at the NBC affiliates’ meeting in May, as quoted by Broadcasting & Cable:  “Let me set the record straight once and for all,” said Zucker. “Standing here on the stage of one of the most famous broadcast studios in the world–created for radio, rebuilt over the years for television, then color TV, then digital broadcasting–let me be as clear as I can be: We are not abandoning the business of broadcast network television. We are not going direct to cable. We are renewing affiliation agreements. And we are going to be in business together for a long, long time.”

A long, long time, eh?  I guess it depends on what your definition of being in “business together” means.  To NBC, it means getting a taste of affiliates cable and satellite retransmission deals, and in exchange, affiliates get a piece of NBC’s local online news and entertainment businesses.

Uh, did you say NBC’s local online businesses?

Oh yeah, you didn’t hear?  The peacock’s got big plans for local media, whether they own stations in local markets or not.  For NBC affiliates, the network’s offering a “gold” package, wherein the station and NBC cooperate on a local website, among other platforms, in exchange for a renewed and reinvigorated relationship in this troubled times.  “We’d be willing to go long, long for a gold package,” John Eck told TVNewsday.  What if stations don’t want to share the local web pie?  “Your affiliation arrangement is going to be much shorter term,” said Eck.

NBC station owners and managers have obvious reservations about the NBC offer.  NBC Affiliates Board Chair Mike Fiorile (COO of Dispatch Broadcast Group) talked about the “gold” plan with TVNewsday’s Harry Jessell:

“Do you want to be partners with NBC on local Web sites? For instance, they would want you to be NBCindianapolis.com.

Frankly, I don’t have a lot of interest in that. I’m already NBC Indianapolis. If someone does a search for NBC Indianapolis, I’d sooner they come to a site that I own as opposed to a site that I’m a partner with somebody else on.

Well, this could be a second site for you because NBC is proposing lifestyle sites as opposed to the news site you’re now doing.

Yes, but I’d rather have all the NBC Indianapolis traffic come to visit me.”

We're NBC in This Town, Thanks Very Much

We're NBC in This Town, Thanks Very Much

All well and good.  It’s completely understandable that the guy whose station, WTHR, has historically been NBC in Indianapolis, would like his website to be the source for news and information and all things Indy and NBC.

Well, here’s the interesting thing about NBCIndianapolis.  It already exists, and WTHR doesn’t own it.  GE does.  In fact, a quick survey of URL listings reveals that in market after market, NBC’s been on a domain-buying spree in cities where there are no NBC O&Os.

In Boston, where Sunbeam’s NBC station, WHDH has had a bumpy partnership with the network–most recently threatening not to air Jay Leno’s new primetime show–NBC’s ready to roll into the market with or without Ed Ansin.  NBCBoston.com is owned by GE.  Whether WHDH considers the domain simply a placeholder purchased by a network just in case station and affiliate ever wanted to team up on a site, or rather a threat to compete directly with WHDH’s whdh.com for local clicks–and dollars–is not something the station wanted to talk about.  “We are aware of NBC local,” WHDH’s Chris Weyland said in an email.  “We have no comment.”

Perhaps NBC’s just thinking ahead and buying up domains before some joker can get to them first, and has no plans for using NBCBoston.com to compete against its own NBC station.  But keep this in mind:  NBC’s business model has already moved beyond call letters.

NBCNewYork:  Peacock Yes, Station Call Letters No

NBCNewYork: Peacock Yes, Station Call Letters No

Jeff Zucker explained his thinking clearly in a quote on lostremote: “WNBC.com or WNBC4.com is an extension of the television station, it’s not a real scaled game. We don’t want to play just in that game. We want to play in the entire New York or Chicago or Los Angeles or whatever city you want to call it online media space and we can’t do that by just limiting ourselves to the call letters of our traditional analog TV station.”

“Or whatever city you want to call it.”  If you work at an NBC affiliate, punch in NBC and your city.  Is the domain taken?  Is that why NBC’s smiling even as the over-the-air business for stations fades away?

I’m just asking.  NBC, by the way, did not respond to requests for comment.

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The Inescapable Truth: NBC’s Secret Evil Plan to Destroy Local News as We Know It

NBC:  Out to Destroy the Local News

NBC: Out to Destroy the Local News


Who knows?  We may look back on this era and think, “Man, NBC was so far ahead of the curve!” They knew the model of local news many of us grew up with:  the big, well-paid anchors, the choppers, the liveshots, the stable of seasoned reporters–those were all, you know, expendable. In the future, the local news would come from content centers:  awkward, low-ceilinged newsrooms where recent college graduates would produce quick and dirty stories that air in endless repetition on digital cable channels somewhere between monster truck shows and classic movies. Oh!  And you can also get the stuff (sorry–the “content”) on your phone.

Well anyway, this Secret Evil Plan to dominate the next evolution of local news is well underway at NBC.  That conclusion is now inescapable.  A few cases in point from the past few days:  the departure of Paul Moyer in Los Angeles, and NBC’s enraged response to WHDH/Boston’s decision to ditch Jay Leno in favor of an hour of local news at 10 p.m.

KNBC's Paul Moyer: An Unexpected "Retirement"


First, LA.  Earlier this week, I wrote about the splashy yet debatable Defamer report that NBC had plans to kill off two of its golden geese:  Moyer at KNBC and Chuck Scarborough at WNBC/NY. Showing my bias as a kid who grew up watching local news in New York, I largely dismissed the idea as almost-too-stupid-even-for-NBC. The next day, Moyer announced his “retirement.”  As the LA Times reported, “Moyer, whose last day has yet to be determined, would not comment on the reasons behind his unexpected announcement.”

The reason is this:  NBC is over big money anchors and believes young and nameless (and by definition easily replaceable) is the way of the future.  And now, more than ever, I wonder how long Chuck and Sue will sit at the desk in New York.  Sources this week confirmed what I had only jokingly suggested:  that yes, NBC has had “brainstorming sessions” that have focused on a WNBC without its longtime anchor.  If your goal is translating local news to an ever younger demographic, the thinking goes, why stay tied to a guy who, you know, is only getting older?

Jay Leno, Key Component of NBCs Secret Evil Plan

Jay Leno, Key Component of NBC's Secret Evil Plan


And then there’s Boston.  A key component of NBC’s Secret Evil Plan is the move of Jay Leno to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, bringing his sleep-inducing show from its position AFTER the local news, and putting it on as a LEAD-IN to local news.  Once upon a time, NBC produced excellence in the 10 o’clock hour:  dramas that were so good, the network and its local stations worked together to seamlessly move from the last frame of the drama right into the first tease of the local newscast, so as not to lose a single eyeball.  It was designed to deliver a profitable payoff for stations, especially NBC’s O&Os.

Now comes Leno.  An hour.  Every weeknight.  Imagine how tired you’ll be by the time 10:58 rolls around.  Ed Ansin, no stranger to maximizing an audience at ten o’clock, decided he’d be better off in Boston doing an hour of news.  As Ansin told the Boston Globe, “We feel we have a real opportunity with running the news at 10 p.m. We don’t think the Leno show is going to be effective in prime time,” Ansin said yesterday. “It will be detrimental to our 11 o’clock [newscast]. It will be very adverse to our finances.”

Even more interesting than Ed Ansin’s pushback against NBC (and do you think he’ll be the only one?) is the enraged response from the network:  “WHDH’s move is a flagrant violation of the terms of their contract with NBC,” John Eck, president of NBC Television Network, told the Globe. “If they persist, we will strip WHDH of its NBC affiliation. We have a number of other strong options in the Boston market, including using our existing broadcast license to launch an NBC-owned and operated station.”

So much to dissect in that statement.  But let’s go with the craziest first.  NBC would invest in starting its own station in Boston?  Over Leno?  The network’s been trying for months to offload some of the best local stations in the country, with no luck.  Clearly, NBC thinks owning stations is a losing proposition.  A year ago, LostRemote reported on a revealing NBC memo:  “We’re in the process of re-engineering the way we think, shifting our focus from a traditional stations business to becoming full-service local-media-production centers,” NBC Local Media president John Wallace said in an internal memo obtained by Broadcasting & Cable.

WHDH/Boston:  Ed Ansin Wants 7 News, Not Leno

WHDH/Boston: Ed Ansin Wants 7 News, Not Leno


So it’s really not about having a station in Boston.  It’s about destroying local news as we know it. And damn Ed Ansin if he still believes in local news as a profit center!  Not only that, but how rude of WHDH!  Leno grew up in Andover, Mass!  You’re basically stabbing a local boy in the back in the name of a few bucks!

Oh wait.  That’s what NBC does every day.  Never mind.

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Say It Ain’t So! A Little Less Alliteration from Ansin’s Anxious Anchors?

It was one of the most memorable lines in the 1987 film “Broadcast News,” when the alliteratively-named network newser Aaron Altman mocked his new nightly news nemesis and his penchant for peppy prose:  “A lot of alliteration from anxious anchors placed in powerful posts!”

Well, anybody who’s watched either of Ed Ansin’s “7 News” stations, WSVN/Miami or the layoff-laden WHDH/Boston, knows alliteration’s just the way they roll, with every routine rainstorm loudly labeled “wicked weather!”

It’s just the formula.  Or is it?  In Boston, a remarkable reduction in ratings recently, resulting in the removal of Randy Price as main anchor, has those in powerful posts pondering pulling the plug on all the alliteration in the station’s snappy scripts:  “Alliteration was used no less than seven times during Monday’s 11 p.m. news., and fewer times the following night – although the ‘cash and crash’ graphic used to describe the Medford bank robbery was cringe-worthy,” wrote the Herald’s Jessica Heslam.

The focus on fewer flashy lines in the station’s newscasts may have something to do with the sharp criticism coming from recently-released main anchor Randy Price, who called the incessant alliteration “mind-numbing” in a recent radio interview.  Price said sometimes producers would stretch so far to find a clever graphic, it would no longer serve the story, such as “Plane Plunge.”  As Price told WRKO radio, “I would have to turn around and say, ‘What does that graphic mean?'”

WSVN/Miami:  Flashy Graphics, A Lot of Alliteration

WSVN/Miami: Flashy Graphics, A Lot of Alliteration

Boston’s always been a bit more highbrow than Miami, where “Triple Trouble in the Tropics” and hurricanes “Packing a Powerful Punch” is still standard fare.  Would station owner Ed Ansin really respond to ridicule by issuing an alliteration reduction order, ditching the distinctive 7 style just like he cut ties to Randy Price?  Well, that would be a Major Milestone.

Sorry.  I’m done now.

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Doesn’t Matter Who You Are, How Long You’ve Been There, What You’ve Done: Peabody Award Winner Shown the Door in St. Louis

LATEST LAYOFFS:  KMOV/St. Louis reporter John Mills would seem to be the kind of guy a station likes having around:  hard-working, good in the field and as a fill-in anchor;  and a journalist with credentials:  A Peabody, and Edward R. Murrow Award, and, just last fall, the local “Riverfront Times” named Mills “Best Reporter.”  He seems the the kind of guy you build a strong bench by keeping in the dugout.  Oh.  Except, these days local TV station are playing baseball with one marquee name, maybe, and a smattering of little leaguers willing to play pro ball for very little money, and agree to clean up the stands after the game.

Mills lost his job this week.  After thirteen years at KMOV, he was laid off, and his award-winning bio got the traditional trip into the local news memory hole.  Mills, though, had a few thing to say, via his personal website, and amazingly, the guy took the high road (just like Andrea McCarren, and Randy Price, and Carolyn Gusoff, and Jay DeDapper…) “if any St. Louis companies or organizations are interested in a loyal and dedicated employee, I would very much appreciate their consideration,” he wrote.  “I’m not bitter.  In TV, this was an incredible run.”

Too bad companies like KMOV (and WJLA, and WHDH, and WNBC…) aren’t willing, able, or interested any longer in “loyal and dedicated” guys like John Mills.

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And Now, Back to WHDH, Where Another Anchor Gets the Boot

WHDH's Rudat

WHDH's Rudat

It’s been a rough month at WHDH/Boston.  First, longtime and much-loved main anchor Randy Price was unceremoniously shown the door a week ago;  this morning we learn (again, from the Boston Globe, not from the station itself) that weekend anchor Brandon Rudat is gone.  He got the news yesterday, according to the Globe’s boston.com:  “I was told . . . that I am very skilled and that I am very talented but I am not right for the station,” said Rudat, 29, who started at Channel 7 in early 2007. His contract with the station expires April 22, which will be his last day. Rudat also anchors weekends on sister station CW-56. “Good things will come out of this,” he predicted, wrote the Globe’s Mark Shanahan.

According to the paper, HDH GM Chris Wayland wouldn’t comment on Rudat’s release, though Rudat, like Price before him, had been vocal inside the 7 Newsplex about the station’s flashy, sensational WSVN/Miami approach in more sober, less flashy New England.  Dissent, according to the Globe, did not do good things for job security:  “We should be able to debate what the story should be,” Rudat said. “If you debate, you suddenly become a target. . . . It’s really hard.” 

Tense Times in the 'Plex
Tense Times in the ‘Plex

The HDH departures have local Boston newsbloggers going into overdrive, with much speculation about what’s motivating the exodus:  money, or being unacceptably vocal.  The comments at bostontvnews make for interesting reading.

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Laid Off by WJLA/DC, Andrea McCarren Finds Her Faith “Renewed”

Andrea McCarren

Andrea McCarren

At this point, every one of us in this business knows someone–likely, a few people–who’ve lost their jobs since this time last year.  They are smart, they are dedicated, they are the people we liked working alongside, gossiping with, bitching about the business with, and now–they are gone.  From tape room operators in the smallest markets to anchors at the top of the game, there’s an all-star team sidelined by an economic situation that’s threatening to change local news forever.

Some get to say goodbye, but most, like WHDH’s Randy Price, get to write quick farewell emails to co-workersin the newsroom computer, but have to rely on the local newspaper to relay their gratitude to viewers. As local news stations, we cover the closing of every factory and mill, and never miss a chance to use the down-arrow gfx when job loss numbers are released, but folks who still get news, weather and (for now) sports from local stations rarely get any explanation of the latest layoff at the station itself.  

Longtime WJLA/DC reporter Andrea McCarren wrote in the Washington Post recently, “It’s hard to say whether getting pink-slipped in the public eye is better or worse. When you work in local television news, strangers treat you like family. We on-camera reporters are their friends, their confidants. After all, we’re in their living rooms and kitchens, in some cases every day.”

Andrea McCarren and Co-Workers at WJLA

Andrea McCarren and Co-Workers at WJLA

“In a sense, these people are my “family,” too. Over the years, they’ve shared my life’s high points — getting married, having kids, even being promoted — and they’ve been there for the low ones, sending condolence cards after my father’s sudden death and, now, the loss of my job.”

McCarren never got to say goodbye to her tv “family” on tv, but those viewers who felt they knew her have been letting her know they care–in the form of more than 400 emails and letters, some, she told me, “were heartbreaking; others were filled with optimism. Hundreds came from other experienced, hard-working people like me who loved their jobs and were also laid off.  Many came from people who had been through the ordeal of being abruptly terminated and bounced back, landing in a place where they were happier than ever!”

So while I’ve been accused of being a web-based harbinger of doom for relaying the layoffs day in and day out, I wanted to share Andrea McCarren’s words as well;  that while the loss is painful and huge, the support, the friendship and love is too.  “This whole experience has renewed my faith in humanity: the kindness of strangers, and the compassion of Americans to lend a hand in troubled times. It’s also revealed just how many talented and dedicated people are out of work right now. We’re all in this together,” McCarren told me.

McCarren says she’s still figuring out what her next step will be.  The economy’s down, but her spirits are certainly up, and she says she’ll immerse herself in volunteer work as a way to pay it forward, and to “keep everything in perspective.”

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On WHDH/Boston’s Website, Anchor Vet Vanishes Overnight: It’s Like Randy Price Never Happened

It must’ve been a long weekend for the Newsplex trolls at WHDH/Boston, what with so much history to erase, you know?  Word leaked out Friday in a breaking news post on boston.com that the longtime main anchor at Channel 7, who’d anchored the news Wednesday night, had met with station owner Ed Ansin Thursday and “mutually agreed” to leave, effective immediately.  “While I certainly was a little stunned, I understood it very well,” Price told the Boston Herald. “When you own the station you have the right to do things the way you want to do them and I respect that.” Since then, Ansin’s publicly described Price as a “friend” who’s “retired,” while Price has firmly stated he may take some time off, but he’s definitely not done.

As is standard in sudden departures like these, station management goes quiet, desks are cleared out, pictures removed from walls, promos are re-edited, and websites are scrubbed.  Suddenly, the main, mustachioed face of Boston’s big, bold, splashy station, shrugs at the mention of the name “Randy Price.”  Come again?  Enter Price’s name in the search box of WHDH’s website tonight, and it will return precisely zero hits.  “Did not match any documents,” the site told me, suggesting that I re-check the spelling or try different key words.  I wonder how long it takes to remove every reference to a man who’s been the dominant face of the station for 12 years?  

Unlike the heralded and highly promoted (genuine) retirement of another Boston legend, Natalie Jacobson, Price will get no on-air farewell, and viewers who look to the WHDH website for an explanation of Price’s he-must-not-be-named disappearance will get no explanation.  As I’ve written before, this type of pretend-he-never-worked-here posture has the cold, clinical feel of altering the history books in the old Soviet Union, updating them to remove references to suddenly out of favor figures.  Don’t viewers deserve a little better? 

To do the “what?  who?” routine only makes all the “news team family” stuff seem so transparent and fake. Like the item WHDH put on its website in 2007–and still searchable in cache form on Google–describing Price’s noteworthy marriage to his partner, Mark Steffan, on Boston’s Statehouse steps:  “We want to congratulate an important part of our team.  Randy Price got married today.”

When that “important part” of the team was let go, the station–like so many others–left it to the newspapers to explain.  On 7, it’s like he never happened.

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