Unemployment Lines

Deregulation and technology could cause more jobs to disappear

Take a look at the lines on the chart in the bottom right-hand corner of the front page of this newspaper. It says that employment in broadcasting peaked in 2000 and has been drifting downward since. The numbers come from Washington, so you have to be a bit skeptical about their accuracy, but nobody in or around this business can doubt the trend. Employment is falling and, I believe, will continue to fall for a long while.

I believe that, not because I think the economy will slog through 2003 as it did 2002 (let's hope not), but because two powerful forces are reshaping broadcasting in ways that will simply require fewer people to run stations, particularly newsrooms. Those forces: ownership deregulation and technology.

From all I've heard, FCC Chairman Michael Powell intends to stay the course and significantly relax the station-ownership rules this spring. By the Fourth of July, a media company may be allowed to own newspaper and TV stations in most markets, station groups reaching half the nation's 100 million TV homes and two stations (duopolies) in small markets. Today, duopolies are only permitted in the largest.

What's it all mean for employment? Plenty. The biggest share of a TV station's staff works in the newsroom and that is where the downsizing will come. As we've seen in the large markets, duopolies don't necessarily mean a reduction in newscasts (sometimes they mean an increase), but a duopoly almost always means a decrease in the number of newsrooms—that is people producing news. If one station in Oklahoma City buys another in the same market under the relaxed duopoly rules, the buyer may continue to broadcast news on both stations, but it will do so from one newsroom.

Such synergy seems inevitable in markets where the major daily newspaper and a TV station come under common ownership. If the newspaper acquires a TV station, it will be tempted to cheat on the number of reporters it puts in the field, figuring some of the more articulate (and pretty) newspaper reporters can manage some TV.

And the more stations a group owns, the more tempted it will be to implement some kind of centralcasting scheme that allows the group to program many stations from a hub station. On page 12 today, you can read about Sinclair's aggressive centralcasting plans. I'm not saying that centralcasting results in lousier newscasts—indeed, the tape I saw of Sinclair's centralized newscast on WSMH(TV) Flint, Mich., looked and sounded pretty good for a market its size—I'm just saying that it may mean fewer people are going to be needed to produce news. Sinclair argues that by cutting costs through centralcasting it will end up not only with more newscasts at more stations, but also more total news employees. We'll keep count on that.

The other half of the employment story is technology. Centralcasting, or even the common operation of a local duopoly, would be uneconomical if not for advances in automated controls and the plummeting cost of interconnectivity. The computerization of ENG gear also means that producers can operate camcorders and video editors and package their own segments without the help of technicians, photographers and video editors. It's a story as old as civilization: New tools make work easier, but also make some people expendable.

So, it's true: Deregulation and technology, at the prompting of management, may be conspiring to put TV newspeople out of work as they have already put radio newspeople out of work. That means the line on that employment chart will probably continue on its downward course.

Probably, because you never know what's going to happen next. Although history argues against it, TV broadcasters may discover some new businesses and need to hire new kinds of people to run them. That's why it is encouraging that leading station groups are getting behind the idea of a broadcast lab, whose mission is not only to develop technology but also to seek out new ways for broadcasters to make a buck in their transition to digital. It's even possible that deregulation will free up resources that will encourage some badly needed entrepreneurship in broadcasting.

By the way, the chart that we didn't publish on the front page shows the steady rise of cable employment, uninterrupted by the current recession or stagnant basic-subscriber growth. It's easy to explain. Cable keeps inventing new services: digital TV, video-on-demand, high-speed Internet access, cable telephony. And every time it does, it needs people to make them happen.

You don't find many typewriter repairmen around anymore, but no office can function without a roomful of IT pros.