In Depth

RTDNA Study: More TV News Despite Less Manpower

By Hillary Atkin

There is more television news on the air but fewer jobs in the business these days, according to a just-released annual study conducted by the Radio Television Digital News Association and Hofstra University.

The bottom line in 2009 was that stations were doing more with less, yet industry executives are feeling confident that cutbacks have leveled off and that staffing is likely to increase in 2010.

Four hundred people lost their TV news jobs last year, about 1.5 percent of the total employment in the business. But that was a considerable improvement from 2008, when 1,200 people got pink-slipped, amounting to 4.3 percent of the work force.

The dramatic turnaround in employment stats foretells an even brighter future, according to the study. More than 60 percent of television news directors said they expect staff levels to stay the same in 2010, up 20 points from last year. The number expecting an increase in hiring was up a whopping 145 percent from 2009, while those predicting a decrease in staffing dropped 77 percent from last year.

“In my mind, there’s no question we’ll see staffing increases in 2010. It’s pretty clear not just in the survey but in talking to news directors, as well,” said Bob Papper, who conducts the RTDNA/Hofstra studies and is chair of the department of journalism, media studies and public relations at Hofstra University.

“Doing more with less can get you through the recession, but it’s not a long-term strategy. You simply can’t keep operating that way. The fact is stations have gone well beyond the bone at this point,” said Papper. “We’re seeing the car business coming back. Upfronts are going to be better, the economy is rebounding — and employers have to respond.”

Papper also pointed to the flood of mid-term election money flowing into stations and predicted that more job opportunities will become available in the nation’s largest markets, at the same stations that shed the most number of positions. “I would expect more hiring at network affiliates, and Fox stations are likely to lead the way,” he said. “They have the greatest room for expansion and tend to be doing more of it. CBS stations may well be right behind that. A lot is going to depend on NBC’s new programming that helps at 11. We could see some growth there, as many NBC stations have really been hurt.”

In 2009, the amount of news on the average television station escalated to five hours each weekday, up from 4.7 hours the previous year.

Going into 2010, a net loss of eight stations doing news left 762 stations producing original local television newscasts, and sharing content with another 224, for a total of 986 stations.

“The amount of news set a new record, and that tells you that stations are betting on local news,” Papper said. “They’ve clearly staked out that this is critical to their future. With only eight stations dropping news, it clearly reinforces the notion that if you’re in the local TV news business, or a network affiliate, you’re betting on local news.”

The study showed stations that did cut newscasts deleted them on the weekends, both morning and evening. Behind that were a few stations that cut in the 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., noon to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. time slots. Fox affiliates were more likely to report gains in the amount of news, while CBS affiliates reported cuts.

The profitability of news on TV stations dropped slightly, about 5 percent, although the percentage of station revenue produced by news remained about the same. About 48 percent of TV news organizations showed a profit, while about 15 percent broke even, 8 percent lost money — and a staggering 29 percent didn’t know the answer to the profitability question. Geographically, stations in the Northeast were less likely than others to make a profit on news and more likely to lose money.

“What’s interesting and critically important is the percent of station revenue from news held steady,” said Papper. “That reinforces the notion that stations are making big bets on news and information.”

Radio news changed little in 2009, with the amount of news on the air about the same as the prior year. The average news department was made up of one person, with a typical radio news director overseeing news on three stations. Major market, group-owned and noncommercial stations were most likely to have increased the amount of news they aired.

The study was conducted in the last quarter of 2009 with responses from 1,355 television stations and 203 radio news directors and general managers representing 301 radio stations.