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Torn between the old and the new

Nov 18, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The plight of a broadcaster in the midst of a noncompete agreement might be compared to that of a couple of kids fighting over a toy. The first child doesn’t want to play with it anymore, but wants to make darn sure the other kid doesn’t get to play with it either.
Intended to protect stations from the loss of high-profile talent to competitors, the widely employed codicil prohibits an employee of one station or network from working for a competitor for a stated period, normally six months to one year.
Seems simple enough. But sometimes things get nasty, and lawyers get involved. When weatherman Nathan Tannenbaum left KVBC-TV in Las Vegas in December 2000 for his new gig at rival KTNV-TV, his noncompete prohibited his appearing on the new station for up to a year.
Then in a clever-and, it turned out, expensive-bit of marketing, KTNV began running cameo street scenes and photographs of Mr. Tannenbaum to promote his arrival.
“The lawyers [representing KTNV] interpreted the deal that it was OK to run photographs of Nate on the air, but the old station didn’t interpret it that way, and we wound up in court,” Mr. Tannenbaum said.
Smooth transition
Weeks later, a local judge ruled in KVBC’s favor and ordered Mr. Tannenbaum to remain off the air for the full term of his agreement. The parties later settled, and the popular bow-tied prognosticator made his debut at KTNV in October 2001.
“I ended up producing some newscasts,” he said. “I told people I was the highest-paid part-time producer in television.”
Most noncompete arrangements don’t end up in court. WTKR-TV, Norfolk, Va., anchor Barbara Ciara worked as managing news editor while waiting out her one-year break after leaving rival WVEC-TV. She returned to the air in July 2001.
In Boston, veteran forecaster Harvey Leonard showed up on WCVB-TV in August after a four-month hiatus from his previous employer of 25 years, WHDH-TV.
“There were some articles in the papers about me, but not everyone reads them, so for a lot of people, I just disappeared for a while,” Mr. Leonard said.
From management’s standpoint it makes sense to impose restrictions on popular talent. After all, station owners argue, they expend enormous resources to tie a talent’s identity to that of the station.
“To have them show up the next day on a station across town is certainly harmful to the broadcaster,” said Wade Hargrove, a media attorney in Raleigh, N.C.
Mr. Hargrove counts among his clients the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters, which last year beat back an attempt to weaken the state’s laws pertaining to noncompete agreements.
Broadcasters claim that noncompetes do not constrain a departing employee from working, as long as he or she doesn’t plan to work for the competition in a similar capacity. Nonetheless, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists has made eradication of the noncompete a cause celebre.
“It means that many times an employee has to move away, seek other work or leave the profession entirely, and that’s just not fair,” said Don Livesay, AFTRA’s executive director in Phoenix.
Outlawed in some states
Arizona recently banned the use of noncompetes in broadcast contracts. Illinois, Maine and Massachusetts now severely restrict their use, and California has barred them for half a century.
Despite the efforts in many states to enervate noncompetes, Mr. Hargrove expects their use to continue.
“It has long been an accepted business practice,” he said. “Why suddenly the argument is raised that these agreements are not appropriate for broadcasters is puzzling.”
Mr. Tannenbaum said he learned a lot from his experience.
“A lot of people were patting me on the back and saying, `Yea, Nate, you are taking a stand against noncompetes,’ but it really wasn’t that,” he said. “I signed a contract, and I agreed to a noncompete. But if they were struck down in our state, I think that would be a good thing.”
Mr. Tannenbaum said he is happy with his new contract at KTNV, which includes a one-year noncompete clause.