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Cover Story: Dawn of the Post “Star Anchor” Era

Bye-bye, Ron Burgundy—big-contract newsreaders are being pushed to extinction by hungry (and cheap) multitasking reporters. 4/06/2009 10:48:00 AM Eastern

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When he broke into television in 1985, WBZ Boston anchor Jonathan Elias says he viewed some of the star talent he worked with as "glorified meat puppets"-blow-dried know-nothings who rolled in just before their newscast, read through their script and delivered the news without setting so much as a single wingtip on the mean streets of the market. "I remember the disdain we had for anchors," Elias says, "their feet on their desks, rubbing your nose in it that they made five times as much as we did."

Twenty-four years later, Elias is in a position that most in local TV would kill for—anchoring the 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. news and reporting for the 11 p.m. at a network-owned station in a sophisticated Top 10 market. But he's hardly got his feet up. Elias' typical day sees him blogging, addressing viewers' e-mails, pitching in at story meetings, rewriting scripts, incorporating Twitter into his viewer dialogue and hitting the streets of Boston after doing the evening news to flesh out stories for the 11 p.m.

In short, Elias is using all available resources to gather news. “You've got to have a lot of tools in your shed to play in this environment today,” he says. “The days of minimal expectations are over—everybody's expected to be fully engaged on all fronts.”

With the local TV economy wheezing, the mega-million-dollar anchor, tasked solely with reading the Teleprompter, is going the way of the LP record and the thriving daily newspaper. In an era where content, not talent, is king, that giant salary is being put to better use in hiring a batch of hungry multimedia multitaskers. Those all-star anchors who have been able to avoid the sack thus far are often compelled to take on a wider range of duties and, with an “economic gun pointed at their head,” in the words of one industry watcher, do it for significantly less money.

“The anchor's value at the TV station is their ability to bond with the marketplace, and you don't do that by breezing in just before your newscast,” says LIN TV Executive VP Scott Blumenthal. “You do it by being out there using your reporting skills. Nobody's watching the show because it looks good.”

Anchoring was—for many, for a long time—a cushy job. The pay was enviable, the workload manageable, and the anchor—such as Bill Beutel in New York and Walter Jacobson in Chicago—enjoyed A-list status. If he was unhappy, a knock on the door of a rival station often resulted in a lucrative jump across the street.

But as cable TV, video games and the Web became increasingly popular alternatives to local news, stations—and anchors—lost much of that rock star luster. Local TV brought in $17.1 billion in revenue in 2000, according to Borrell Associates, but just $12.4 billion in 2008, seeing its piece of the local ad pie drop from 14.2% to 11.4% during that period. Things got dicier when the automotive industry began drastically cutting back its budgets—dropping from perhaps 30% of a typical station's ad revenue a decade ago to 10%-15% now, according to several general managers' estimates.

The heavy station layoffs arrived en masse a year ago, and included a lot of talent. CBS was first up with big cuts, none bigger than WBBM Chicago anchor Diann Burns and her $2 million price tag. Subsequent attempts at market correction came from Gannett, Raycom, Media General and most of the other major station groups. In the past few weeks, the casualties incude KTVK Phoenix's longtime anchors Brad Perry and Dan Davis (Belo), popular WCCO Minneapolis anchor Jeanette Trompeter (CBS Television Stations), and KUTV Salt Lake City (Four Points Media Group) talent Issa Arnita, Tyler Perry and Jennifer Stagg. Last week, KNBC Los Angeles icon Paul Moyer and WNBC New York's Len Berman announced their departures; both had put in around 25 years at the stations.

Stations are scrutinizing the bottom line as never before. “In today's world,” says Dick Haynes, senior VP of research at Frank N. Magid, “you have to see a return on every nickel that's invested.”

With the economy showing little sign of recovery, talent is frequently called to the table to negotiate a pay cut in exchange for a longer deal. A wide range of consultants, agents and station management estimate the typical anchor's pay to be anywhere from flat to down 10%-20% these days, with many of the pricey old guard simply shown the door.

“It's a little bit of a joke calling those things contracts, meaning nothing is guaranteed,” says former WHDH Boston lead anchor Randy Price, who was pushed out in February after a dozen years at the station. “It basically sets out the terms, and you understand the parameters of how you would be exited.” (Click here to listen to a podcast interview with Randy Price.)

Agents say the usual negotiation pas de deux with stations has become woefully short on foreplay. “Never before have so many general managers said 'take it or leave it' so quickly,” says Signature Media Group President Marc Watts, who counts Diann Burns among his agency's clients. “There's no more gamesmanship involved; the agent's hand has completely weakened.”

Faced with the prospect of joining the ever-expanding pool of unemployed reporters, anchors are taking on far greater responsibility at stations, whether it's being more visible in the community, connecting with viewers via Twitter or a blog, popping up on a greater number of newscasts or playing a managing editor role in the newsroom. At Meredith's Portland, Ore., duopoly, the more experienced anchors have a bigger say in editorial decisions, and every anchor now reports for multiple newscasts.

WWOR New York main anchor Harry Martin, a 30-year news veteran, recently added the 6 p.m. program on sister WNYW to his 10 p.m. WWOR duties. During election season, Martin produced video from the conventions. VP/General Manager Lew Leone says Martin had been pushing for more work at the Fox-owned duopoly. “We're looking for ways to increase efficiencies,” Leone says. “It made sense to Harry and it made sense to us.”

While most markets will continue to have a small handful of front-line anchors who command major ratings, news consumption has changed dramatically. As viewers demand round-the-clock content, station managers are finding that cutting loose an A-list anchor opens up resources for a small army of versatile journalists. And no one expects things to go back to the way they were once advertising bounces back. “The rules absolutely have changed,” says Tom Petner, editor of the online industry newsletter ShopTalk, part of Website TVSpy.com. “It's really more of a team sport now.”

Such a dramatic shift from the traditional news model may sound daunting for some in local television. But broadcasters almost universally say the more kinetic anchor will ultimately bolster credibility and foment the bond between viewers and local news. They say a generation of younger viewers raised on the Anderson Cooper model—anchoring on his feet, visible on the battleground—hold considerable contempt for the “disc jockey of the news,” as one broadcast veteran puts it. “Anchors that are seen as active out in the field are almost always perceived as more credible,” says SmithGeiger Senior VP Mark Toney.

For those who enjoy the frenetic urgency of the newsroom and the immediacy of digital media, such as WBZ's Elias, it makes for a more fulfilling workday. For others, it's the end of an era. “The legacy anchors who do nothing but read copy on the air now are the dinosaurs of our business,” says WFTV Orlando News Director Bob Jordan. “Everybody's in the content-generation business now.”

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