TVN Executive Session | Graham’s Barr: Pandemic Will Escalate ‘Flexible Work’
Like many in the television industry’s C-suites, Emily Barr is hesitant to offer too many predictions about what broadcasting will look like on the other side of the pandemic.
The president and CEO of Graham Media Group will hazard a few cautious offerings. Among them: NextGen TV’s rollout will slow, bonded cellular’s use will boom and work will become more flexible, both in terms of remote versus onsite location and the hours in a workday.
In an interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Michael Depp, Barr says the company “has a lot of arrows in our quiver” to avoid layoffs or furloughs despite the hit to ad sales it has taken since March. She says some resurgent ad categories like automotive, insurance and political have given her cautious optimism.
Deep into the biggest crisis the industry has ever faced, she also concedes leadership must entail working with numerous uncertainties now, and that honesty and transparency with employees are essential to getting through. “The hardest thing … is I don’t have a playbook,” Barr says.
An edited transcript.
Entire departments have been successfully virtualized across the industry since the pandemic began. Which ones do you want to keep that way for the foreseeable future or perhaps even permanently?
It is safe to say that there are departments such as sales and marketing that have worked really well outside of the building. I could foresee that there will be some hybrid type of workflow that develops out of that. What has been interesting is to look at some of the other departments that have stepped up and been able to work exceedingly well in a remote fashion.
We have, for example, a traffic hub located in Jacksonville. They have been working remotely and doing a fantastic job. They were already in effect remote for the stations because they were working out of one location for the whole group, but the fact that they can work from their respective residences without any issues makes us think.
Having just come through the round of first quarter earnings reports, it is clear ad sales across the country fell off a cliff in March and 2Q is looking rough. What is your own outlook for second quarter?
Second quarter is going to be down considerably from what we budgeted. There is no pretty way to paint a picture of April. April was terrible and May looks better than April and June looks better than May. I am cautiously optimistic. It is not going to be the quarter we planned, but it does feel like the trajectory is moving and we are starting to see the creeping back of automotive and other categories.
The consensus among station groups seems to be from those earnings that the second quarter is going to be down about 35%-40%. Does that track with your expectations?
I am not going to give you an exact number, but I would say that is a reasonable assumption.
In terms of resurgent categories, you just mentioned automobiles. Do you see any other early green shoots?
We are seeing some interest from insurance. We are waiting to see what happens with political. We are in a couple of states where there is a lot of potential for political — Michigan and Florida specifically — and we have seen some early political money in both of those states. You can never count on it, but it certainly would appear to be something that is going to be pretty robust this year.
The AEs have obviously been hit very hard by this. What is your plan for helping your salespeople through the crisis now?
One of the first things we did was we took a look at the way our AEs are compensated, and we made an immediate adjustment starting in March so they could continue to support their families and earn a living. It seems to have gone over very well with them because they are now in a position where they know they are going to be able to earn a certain amount of money without having to be in fear.
Do you anticipate layoffs, furloughs or salary cuts for Graham at this point?
We do not.
Is that a volatile situation depending on second and third quarter sales?
We have had a lot of conversations with all of our employees and we have been very open and honest about it. I have told them is that it is my intent not to have to go down that path. We have a lot of arrows in our quiver that we can exercise if we need to cut some expenses, and we have done some of that already.
We have held the line on certain expenses. We are at a point where we feel like we can probably keep everybody whole. The only thing that we have done is if a position opens up and it is not critical, we have asked the general managers to hold back on filling an open position.
The positive side is the uptick in viewership by younger viewers. What are you doing to hold onto those viewers to draw that dynamic out to a longer trend?
We have seen a seismic increase in viewership not only on TV, but the amount of people that are coming to our websites and mobile sites is up exponentially. Page views for us are up a 120% in February and March, engagement was up 102%.
The combination of providing younger viewers with access to information — via mobile, web and TV — is going to be a really good opportunity to have them take a look at us, maybe for the first time, and see that there is value there.
We are not changing the way we approach covering the news. We are not trying to jazz it up or make it somehow hipper. But we think that the information we are providing and the delivery systems can be valuable and appealing to that group. So far that would seem to be the case.
Graham has long been out in front of many broadcast groups in terms of digital platforms. How is digital’s use changing for you in the pandemic?
We have always used our digital sites to augment whatever we might be doing on air. [VP and Chief Innovation Officer] Catherine [Badalamente] and her team have done a remarkable job of building out a very fast moving and full-bodied set of sites that really deliver a lot of detail and information. We changed our content management system late last year to the Washington Post’s Arc system. We find the system really easy to use. It is very robust, and as a result we are able to really build out a very comprehensive set of stories and ideas.
Has your OTT strategy specifically evolved at all because of the pandemic and are you adding programming there?
A number of our stations have their own OTT sites. There is a lot to put on right now whether it is on air or online, and the OTT sites are just yet another avenue that people can go to find out what is going on.
Are you doing anything extra to get discovered on OTT?
We are running a lot of promotional spots. We are utilizing our own air and the fact that we have had some available inventory to promote our websites [and] our OTT sites to make sure people understand what it is and how to access it.
TV is still the best bullhorn?
How do you see the rollout of NextGen TV being impacted by the pandemic?
We have been a big supporter of it, and we were ready to roll this year with a couple of our markets, but I think there is going to be some delay. We are a member of [the] Pearl [Group] and very supportive of what Pearl is doing. We are trying to be as aggressive as we can about this, but our ability to do this depends upon others in the same market working together. At this point, I believe we are delayed in Detroit until at least the end of the year and it could be into next year.
Given the election and severe summer weather coming on top of the pandemic, are your news operations able to handle all of this from their remote workflow posture?
Yes. In terms of hurricane season, we know what it is like to deal with that, and we already have contingency plans that are regularly in place. But now we are talking about having to have contingencies for the contingencies. How many portable generators should we have on hand? Who gets the generator if we have somebody working at home?
In some of our cities, we have alternate work sites. We worry about things like power. If people lose power at their homes and they don’t have generators or if the internet goes down, these are all challenges that we have to plan for.
The internet has been the infrastructure that has made all of this necessary. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to have the level of remote production we are sustaining right now. Has that dependency concerned you, and might we need to find some alternatives or a bulk up of bonded cellular?
Absolutely, and we use a lot of bonded cellular now. We are all worried about what happens if the internet suddenly breaks. It has been remarkable how resilient and dependable it has been over these last few months. That is why we are all looking for systems that might be more along the lines of AWS [where] you have a bit more security and sustainability.
For you personally, what have been the most challenging aspects of leading through this crisis?
I have never been through anything like this. No one has. We are all learning as we go. I am always a little bit circumspect about the decisions we make. We are going to go down this path and then we may have to double back, branch off, we don’t know. It worries me that I have to lead the way and I am not always 100% sure if we are doing it right. But what I have come to learn is [you must be] honest and forthright with your employees and communicate with them religiously. I write a weekly memo to everyone in the company to update them on where we are, what is going on, what our next steps are if we know them and if we don’t know them, I am honest about it.
The hardest thing about all of that is I don’t have a playbook. I have to go with my gut and all of the information that I am gathering. At the end of the day I have to make the decision. It can be daunting, but I am feeling cautiously optimistic.
This is going to go on longer than anybody ever thought it might and I worry about a rebound in the virus. I want to make sure that we are as prepared and as careful as we can be because I want to keep everybody healthy. We can get a lot done and handle a lot of business if everybody is healthy.
When we emerge on the other side of this, and it looks like that will be much more of an incremental process than anything definitive, what are some of the aspects of the industry that you expect to change more permanently?
There will be technological changes that will allow us to be more flexible in where people work and when they work. You are going to see an escalation of flexible work, both hours and locations.
In terms of the industry, I would hope we are going to see reemergence of the importance of local media. We have always understood relevance and importance, but it was perhaps waning a little bit in the last number of years, and viewers have had an opportunity to reevaluate it. That bodes well for the future of local television.
Related Story: Barr credits her local GMs, news directors and sales leaders with spinning up creative and inspiring efforts to pull their markets through the crisis. Read it here.