Hiring Explosion at Television Stations

By Papper, Bob | Nieman Reports, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Hiring Explosion at Television Stations


Papper, Bob, Nieman Reports


When KSHB-TV in Kansas City switched affiliations from Fox to NBC back in 1994, it added 54 newspeople--a total news staff of 72--to expand news from one show a day to a regular news lineup of shows at 5 p.m., 6 p.m., and 10 p.m., along with the weekend.

That's what everyone expected. A station becomes an affiliate of one of the big three networks, and it goes into the news business.

Less expected is what happened across the street, at WDAF-TV, which switched from NBC to Fox. Instead of cutting back on news, the station doubled its news staff--to 110--and increased local news to seven hours a day.

"It took the entire first year just to learn what we were doing," according to WDAF-TV News Director Mike McDonald. "Hiring that many people in that short a period of time, it took time to get people into the culture of the place and get everyone on the same page."

Some people said it wouldn't last, that the station couldn't sustain seven hours of news a day. But a year later, WDAF-TV is up to 7 1/2 hours a day, after adding a half hour at 5:30 a.m. This is television news in the 90's.

The expansion is designed to do more than put additional news shows on the air. Many stations are seeking to improve coverage by hiring producers, reporters, assignment editors, and photographers so they can open new suburban bureaus and set up investigative units. Most in demand are reporters, photographers and producers. The hardest to find are male anchors and good producers.

The intense competition among the stations resembles the rivalry among newspapers in the early part of this century, when even small towns had more than one paper.

We are in the third year of a television news explosion--both in the amount of news on the air and the number of people making it happen. Research still being compiled from the 1995 News Survey sponsored by the Radio Television News Directors Foundation and Ball State University shows that of the TV stations that run news, nearly 60 percent added news staff in 1995--compared to just 7 percent that cut back. The rest reported little or no change.

"More affiliates are doing news, and they're doing more news than ever before. That's clear," according to Jerry Gumbert, Vice President at Audience Research and Development in Dallas, Texas, one of the country's largest station consulting firms. The 1995 survey results mirror figures from the year before, when almost every category of TV news operation, by market size or staff size, increased news over 1993.

"What we're feeling is the effect of what started about two years ago," according to Barbara Frye, Director of Talent Placement Services at Frank N. Magid Associates in Marion, Iowa, another of the country's biggest station consultants. "It was a shot fired when New World [Communications Group] brought a number of large stations in large markets over to Fox."

When New World threw its stations and fate in with Rupert Murdoch and Fox, it completely changed the relationships between stations and their networks, and hardly anything in television has been the same since. New World included large and major market VHF (channels 2-13) affiliates in Atlanta, Birmingham, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Phoenix, and Tampa. The change meant Fox would, in many cases, move its programs from relatively obscure UHF stations (channels 14 and up) to old-line, powerhouse VHF stations. It would be like having a newspaper column move from a suburban weekly to the big-city daily.

Local stations, which had been seeing declining network compensation were suddenly being courted by a displaced network. This was high-stakes musical chairs, and every time the music stopped, one of the networks seemed to lose a desirable local television outlet. Group owners started making group deals; networks started buying more of their own stations; local affiliates started seeing lucrative long-term offers from previously-indifferent networks. …

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