Talent Staying Local
KAKE Wichita anchor Jeff Herndon seems like a logical candidate to move out of DMA No. 69 on the way to bigger things. Talent scouts say Herndon, who anchors the 4 p.m., 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. news for the Gray Television station, has the sort of appeal that would play well on a larger stage: smooth on the set and in the field, natural delivery, appealing looks and voice.
By Michael Malone -- Broadcasting & Cable, 3/8/2010 6:20:00 AM
While anchors have for decades hopscotched the U.S. every few years in pursuit of the next big contract, an increasing number—including Herndon—are less eager to leave the safety of a smaller market.
“It used to be the norm to make a move just for the sake of making a move,” Herndon says. “But people are a lot more cautious about it now. If it’s not an ideal fit, they have no problem not making it.”
Anchors, station executives and agents speak of a landmark shift in local television. An increasing sentiment among on-air talent, burned by layoffs and corporate instability the last few years, sees them opting for the bird-in-hand nature of their current station—even if greater exposure and pay may await in a larger market.
“I’ve always said, if you find the right market, stay there. But they don’t always listen to me,” says Sandra Connell, president of placement and coaching firm Talent Dynamics. “But what I’m seeing going on around the country is, [anchors] are evaluating more, and a lot of them are happy just to stay put.”
HIRING ONCE AGAIN
Talent scouts and agents have had a slow couple of years, with numerous stations not fi lling vacated positions in the face of the crippling recession. But as automotive advertising continues to pick up and some $1.8 billion in political spending is forecasted to be added to local TV coffers this year, according to the Television Bureau of Advertising, stations have begun not only to fill talent positions but hire new anchors to helm fledgling newscasts. Connell, for one, has 50 requests for talent on file right now, more than double the 20 she had at the same point last year.
“There’s been a break in the logjam the past few months,” says WPXI Pittsburgh VP/General Manager Ray Carter, who tapped former KUSA Washington anchor Todd McDermott for WPXI’s morning news in January. “People are hiring again.”
But while the Top 10 markets have traditionally offered anchor salaries reaching well into the seven figures, the great reset of the local TV economy has resulted in more modest pay all around. An RTDNA/Hofstra University survey revealed that reporters saw the biggest pay cuts in the local TV business last year, with salaries down 13.3% year-over-year. Next-hardest-hit were anchors, with an 11.5% paycheck paring. It was the first time the survey reported an overall drop in TV salaries in the 15 years it has been conducted.
The study’s authors said the “upper end of the food chain” was most affected by sliced wages. With a narrower gap in pay between large and smaller markets, anchors are less enticed to move to a job in the big city. “It used to be, the bigger the market, the bigger the pay,” says WFTV Orlando News Director Bob Jordan. “It’s not necessarily the case anymore.”
With the recession sending major broadcasters such as Tribune, Freedom Communications and Young Broadcasting stumbling into bankruptcy protection, hiring managers say that anchors and reporters are paying way more attention to the state of companies that might be their next landing point. Whether a company has been through (or remains in) Chapter 11, is mandating furloughs or has gone through heavy layoffs all play a bigger part in an anchor’s next career move—or a refusal to move.
“People aren’t just looking at the job and the station,” says WNEM Flint-Saginaw VP/General Manager Al Blinke. “They’re looking at the company: Is it on the edge, or is it stable enough to take care of its people? People are asking a lot more questions about the state of the company than they used to.”
Besides stable parents, reporters are also more interested in a company’s journalistic chops. Cuts to pay and personnel have thinned the reporter herd considerably; what remains is an idealistic group that’s increasingly intent on doing solid “Big J” journalism, as one Top 10 market anchor puts it. Outfits with strong news reputations like Belo, Cox and Hearst pop up on more wish lists than before, say some industry watchers, as well as markets such as Austin, Seattle and Boston that are thought to have savvy viewers.
For many anchors, the anxiety about moving on and up is rooted in matters as mundane as real estate. With much of the country’s homeowners still reeling from the recent mortgage crisis, local TV professionals are often squeamish about the prospect of selling a house they may have dramatically overpaid for after landing that fat contract in the more lucrative days of local TV. “My ideal job candidate is a renter,” quips WFTV’s Jordan.
That trend is not limited to talent, with department heads and general managers often suffering from the same strain of buyer remorse. “They say they’d like to move, but just don’t know if they can sell their home,” says Frank N. Magid VP of Talent Placement Services Barbara Frye. “It’s not as simple to get people to move as it once was.”
SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE
Not everybody is buying into this better-safe philosophy, however. As long as the country is divided into multiple television markets, there will be anchors and reporters seeking bigger stages. Several station insiders point out that it’s a banner time for younger reporters to land in a large market without toiling in a succession of midsize markets, as the big-city stations frequently find the newbies’ modest salary requirements more in line with the new economics of station TV.
And many aspiring reporters still see moving every few years as an essential part of their endgame toward the major-market anchor desk. “Going from market to market is definitely something I see myself doing,” says Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo senior Kayla Smith, a part-timer at KSBY. “I look forward to the traditional moving up the pyramid.”
Furthermore, multiple aspiring reporters say the parent company still lags behind market size and job description on their job-seeking wish list. “As far as looking at ownership groups in deciding where to jump, I don’t look at it much,” says KNDU Kennewick, Wash., first-year reporter Chris Hurst.
But for the more senior set, who have lived and perhaps struggled through the current economic realities, they’re doing considerable homework before making a move, crunching the cost-of-living numbers and scrutinizing job security issues—and increasingly deciding that the best career move might be the one you never make.
“There’s so much uncertainty in the world we live in; people are cautious about taking jobs in larger markets,” says WNEM’s Blinke. “I think they’re seeing real value in being the big fish in the small pond, instead of the small fish in the big pond.”
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