WSJ: Long-Term Station Outlook Dire

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The local television business makes a rare appearance in today’s Wall Street Journal, and broadcasting executives will probably wish it never did.

The newspaper paints a very dim portrait of the station business, saying the networks are giving some serious consideration to moving their programming directly to cable.

“Local TV Stations Face  a Fuzzy Future” kicks off with a look at Lisa Howfield, head of KVBC Las Vegas and, coincidentally, one of the B&C GMs of the Year

[Howfield] watched last year as the broadcast-television business began to shrink. She started cutting. She combined departments. She made do with old equipment, and did away with luxuries like yearly sales getaways.

In December and January, she laid off 15 employees, or 6% of her staff. After the weatherman left last month, one of the morning news anchors took on both jobs. “It’s like a bad roller-coaster ride,” says Ms. Howfield. Her station’s full-day viewership is down 7.7% this TV season from the same period last year, according to Nielsen Co., and Ms. Howfield expects her ad revenue in 2009 will be down 30% from 2008.

There are a few positives out there, reports Sam Schechner and Rebecca Dana, such as retrans cash. But it’s looking like more than just a bad 2009, they say.

The endgame could come sooner for stations where affiliation agreements with networks are due for renewal in the next three or four years. Over-the-air broadcast deals between NBC, CBS and Fox and the NFL, for example, expire after the 2011 season. Some sports events — like college football’s Bowl Championship Series — have already signed more lucrative deals with cable networks. And as local earnings plunge and media companies take massive write-downs on the value of their broadcast licenses, the networks have fewer incentives to hang on to the stations they own and operate.

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