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.
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Herndon, who’s 34, turned down a job with a network-owned
station in a Top 5 market a few years ago. He won’t rule out a move
in the future, but for now he says he’s more than happy to work in
his hometown market, for managers with local roots, and for a company
that has been able to avoid furloughs and bankruptcy amidst
the miserable local TV economy the last few years.

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.”

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.”

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.”