WRC Cuts Change Face Of Local News
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
One by one, Washington's most popular news station is shedding the people who have helped make it Washington's most popular news station.
In a generational change of local TV news personalities, WRC (Channel 4) has in recent weeks begun eliminating some of its most familiar faces as part of a cost-cutting drive by its owner, NBC Universal. Yesterday, Arch Campbell -- the station's avuncular entertainment reporter/reviewer -- became the latest News4 star to announce he was severing ties with the station.
The roster of personalities whose contracts have not been renewed or were bought out early includes 5 p.m. anchor Susan Kidd, sports anchors George Michael and Wally Bruckner, technology reporter I.J. Hudson and weekend weatherman Clay Anderson. Including Campbell, who has been on News4 since 1974, the departing newspeople have collectively appeared on WRC newscasts for more than 115 years.
The drumbeat of cutbacks raises key questions: How much more will WRC cut? And how far can News4 go in reducing its staff and newsgathering resources before the moves drive viewers away? (Among the recent moves, several of the journalists already have left; others will leave at staggered intervals through early next year.)
The man supervising the station's overhaul, WRC President and General Manager Michael Jack, declined to discuss future cost-saving measures, although he noted that NBC's streamlining initiative will run through 2008.
Jack expects the station to maintain its dominant role because, he said, viewers won't see much that is different about its newscasts. "Our ratings are based on our long-standing image in the community," he said. "It's the product, it's the presentation, it's viewer loyalty."
It's also about personalities. A TV-news axiom holds that viewers watch people as much as they watch news. Station sources say Channel 4's most popular news team -- anchors Jim Vance and Doreen Gentzler and weatherman Bob Ryan -- will remain with the station for several more years. Vance recently signed a new contract, reportedly for more than $1 million annually over three years.
Many media organizations, including The Washington Post, are reducing their overhead amid intensified competition for readers, viewers and advertisers from digital news and information sources. The Post, for example, gave early-retirement packages to about 70 newsroom employees this year.
WRC is a highly profitable operation (Jack would not release specific figures) that has long enjoyed a market-leading position. The station nevertheless has been swept up by the "NBC 2.0" program, a broad initiative by NBC Universal to cut more than $750 million in expenses from its news and entertainment operations and trim about 700 positions (roughly 5 percent of its employees).
Since TV news-watching is often the product of habit, local stations make even small changes to their newscasts -- their most profitable programs -- at their peril. WRC's competitors see parallels between the station's downsizing and a similar campaign by WUSA several years ago. In a bid to lower overall costs and attract younger viewers, Channel 9 parted ways with several familiar veterans, including sportscaster Frank Herzog, anchor-reporter Mike Buchanan, weatherman Doug Hill and anchor Gordon Peterson, the dean of local news personalities, who joined Hill at WJLA (Channel 7).
WUSA, once Washington's news leader, has yet to recover fully. Its 5 p.m. newscast will finish fifth during the November "sweeps" rating period that concludes today, falling behind other news stations and the syndicated "Judge Mathis" on WDCW (Channel 50). And its 6 p.m. newscast will finish fourth behind news on WRC and WJLA at 6 p.m. and "Simpsons" reruns on WTTG (Channel 5).
Competitors see a similar vulnerability in WRC.
"Any kind of instability at WRC is good for us," said a news manager at another station, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing company policy. "Viewers don't like change. When several people leave, they notice the absence."
But another rival news executive said the cutbacks could provide WRC with a double economic benefit. The station can pare its payroll substantially by replacing older, higher-salaried veterans with younger, less expensive on-air personalities who theoretically will help WRC attract the younger viewers that advertisers seek. The news executive noted that the largest share of viewers for WRC's early-evening newscasts are older than 55, an audience that advertisers devalue.
The cutbacks and uncertainty have begun to affect morale within WRC's newsroom, according to some employees.
"There's a lot of anguish and nervous people," Kidd said. "People are just wondering who's next. There's a lot of gossip, and that's not healthy. I'm nostalgic for the days when people just worried about the news and had no idea what was going on in the rest of the building."
Kidd said her own demise at the station, after 22 years on the air, was not totally unexpected. During her last contract negotiation, she was given a one-year deal and a salary cut. Even so, when she got the news, "it was a punch in the gut."
Kidd, 56, and several others at WRC said that those being dropped are older employees.
"This is the old school leaving the building," said Kidd co-anchor Wendy Rieger, who has another year on her contract. "People forget that's what journalism is about. It's not about pretty faces and the hot stand-up. It's about the story and the integrity of the craft and that's what's leaving the building. Who's left to set an example for those who are coming up behind us?"
Tom Sherwood, a former Post reporter who has covered local politics and government for WRC for 17 years, said losing the likes of Kidd and Campbell is "always depressing for the newsroom."
"Channel 4 is in the same business tsunami that The Post and other media organizations are in," Sherwood said. The station is "trying to deal with the struggle on a day-to-day basis because we don't know how far it reaches or when it stops, assuming that it does."
Said Kidd: "If nothing else, there is a sadness that what has worked for so long is being disassembled."
Staff writer John Maynard contributed to this report.