In Depth

Star Anchors Join Journalism's List of Endangered Species

By Elizabeth Jensen

When WTVJ-TV’s Kelly Craig was laid off in June after nearly two decades as a reigning Miami anchor she was in good company. Across the country, once sacrosanct stars are finding their names on layoff lists or heading into not-always-voluntary retirement.

In St. Louis, KSDK-TV’s lead anchor, Deanne Lane, a 25-year-veteran of the Gannett Broadcasting station, was let go mid-April. That same month, KNBC-TV in Los Angeles said goodbye to highly paid Paul Moyer, who retired after 24 years. At New York’s WNBC-TV, sportscaster Len Berman signed off on April 22, after nearly a quarter century there, when he couldn’t come to terms on a new contract; his old one paid an estimated $1 million annually. There are regular whispers that his colleagues Chuck Scarborough and Sue Simmons will retire after their contracts expire.

So is the era of the star anchor ending? Those peering into their crystal balls make widely divergent predictions.

What all agree on is that roles and pay scales are currently undergoing a radical, sometimes ugly, realignment. All told, about 1,200 employees in local television news lost their jobs in 2008, or 4.3 percent of the ranks, according to the RTNDA/Hofstra University annual survey, conducted by Hofstra professor Bob Papper, chairman of the school’s journalism department. He found that nearly 32 percent of stations surveyed planned to eliminate staff positions in 2009.

Many survivors have taken pay cuts or added extra duties, and some left because they wouldn’t do so. Cost-cutting “is certainly behind a whole bunch of retirements we’re seeing, and in some cases they could stay if they were willing to take a pay cut,” Papper said.

The economy—particularly the severe slump in auto advertising, local stations’ mainstay—is largely to blame. BIA Advisory Services recently revised its projected 2009 television station revenue estimate to $16.6 billion, which would be off 17.3 percent from 2008, a level not seen since 1995.

According to Papper, those hit hardest by salary cuts were on-air employees: Reporters were down 13.3 percent; news anchors, 11.5 percent, weather forecasters and sports anchors about 9 percent. Overall, TV news salaries dropped 4.4 percent (8.2 percent when inflation-adjusted), the first decrease he has seen in 15 years of surveys.

But the cuts aren’t across the board. “The fact is, if you’re the frontline anchor at the No. 1 station or a very competitive No. 2, you’re fine,” albeit likely having had to take a pay cut, he said.

Conversely, he said, “If you’re a really highly paid anchor at a distant No. 2 or 3 or 4 station, you’re in trouble.”

Indeed, there are some notable exceptions. While both WNBC-TV and WCBS-TV in New York have thinned their anchor ranks, top-rated WABC-TV so far hasn’t. Ditto ABC affiliate WSB-TV in Atlanta.

 Pali Capital analyst Richard Greenfield questioned in a July blog post why ABC hasn’t taken cost-cutting steps, noting, “We believe the local TV business is in secular decline. Revenue might bounce when the economy recovers,” he wrote, but “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.” The culprit, he sees, is Internet competition and a slew of sports and weather cell phone apps, all “increasing at an accelerating pace.”

Papper doesn’t buy the theory that the star era is over; it’s just “hard to be a high-paid anchor” right now. Unlike newspapers, he noted, TV news operations haven’t laid off many more people than the U.S. economy overall, which has shed 3.8 percent of the work force. Standout employees will have options—and the opportunity to jump stations—once the economy rebounds, he predicted.

“Television’s always been about stars,” agreed an agent who wouldn’t be named, echoing the views of some optimistic colleagues. “The star system’s not going away.”

The agency business depends on it, of course, but this agent predicts that even as stations work their way through the difficult economic period, “the next generation of news stars will be born,” putting themselves into position to be on top when times are again flush.