The latest effect of the worsening financial crisis was brought home to the broadcast TV community this week with the merging of station operations by Barrington and Granite in Syracuse and Peoria. The result will be a boost to the bottom line, but at the cost of the loss of two independent news operations and the jobs of about 70 employees.
There was sad news out of Syracuse, N.Y. (DMA 81), and Peoria, Ill. (DMA 116), this week.
Each community lost one of their local TV news outlets, victims of the economy and their owners’ financial woes and their own poor ratings.
The twin loss was the product of a single agreement between Barrington Broadcasting and Granite Broadcasting to merge their operations in the markets.
In Syracuse, Barrington’s NBC affiliate WSTM took over Granite’s CBS affiliate WTVH. Meanwhile, in Peoria, Granite’s NBC affiliate WEEK took over Barrington’s ABC affiliate WHOI.
Technically, all four stations will continue to air news, but, in fact, two stations, WTVH and WHOI, have ceased to exist as independent journalistic enterprises.
Now, despite rich histories stretching back to the TV revolution of the late 1940s and early 1950s, they are soulless shells, transmitting only programming produced elsewhere — by network, syndicators and other stations.
In their press release, Barrington CEO Jim Yager and Granite CEO Don Cornwell gushed about how the deal would improve service to the good citizens of Syracuse and Peoria.
Could happen, I guess, but unlikely. The deal wasn’t driven by a desire to generate more and better news stories. It was done simply to save money for two companies that have been struggling financially.
The evidence is the 70 or so broadcasters at the two stations who found themselves suddenly among the swelling ranks of America’s unemployed on Tuesday.
Barrington was among the station groups that TVNewsCheck identified this week as laboring under heavy debt loads and in jeopardy of defaulting on loan covenants.
Granite has been trying to right itself since emerging from bankruptcy nearly two years ago. The bankruptcy transformed it from public company to a private one controlled by a private equity firm that had been a major creditor, Silver Point Capital.
So, when the suits at Barrington and Granite looked for “efficiencies,” they found WTVH and WHOI. Both were vulnerable because over the years they had sunk to the bottom of the ratings pile.
Still, it came as a shock not only to the dismissed employees, but also to the cities.
As of this morning, there were 291 comments on the story on the WSTM-WTVH merger on the Web site of the Syracuse Post-Standard and 72 attached to the story of the WEEK-WHOI merger on the Web site of the Peoria Journal-Star. Some of the comments are critical (of the good riddance variety), but many are sympathetic.
And the many broadcasters who passed through the stations on their way to better or worse assignments elsewhere also care. Maureen Green, a longtime anchor at WTVH who was fired in December 2007, wrote an ode to the station on her blog and attracted 51 comments, many from former colleagues who were sorry to see the old shop close.
Ken Kneeland, now a senior producer at ABC News, remembered WTVH fondly in a letter to the editor of the Post-Standard.
There is nothing novel about the Barrington-Granite deal. These so-called virtual duopolies have been popping up all over the country, with an increasing number involving affiliates of the Big 4 networks with local news.
FCC ownership rules may prevent strong stations from buying the weaker in small markets, but the agency has no problem with joint operations like the one Barrington and Granite fashioned in Syracuse and Peoria.
The trend and the lesson are clear: Small TV markets aren’t big enough anymore for three or four independent news operations. Syracuse and Peoria now each have two.
If you aren’t No. 1 or No. 2 in the sweeps and your parent company is being badgered by lenders (many companies are), you just might come to work one day only to be told to pack it up.
I refuse to end my column on such a sour note.
Here in Chatham, N.J., on Monday morning I will be tuning in to ch. 460 on my Verizon FiOS system to watch Day One of New York Nonstop, a 24/7 news and lifestyle channel produced by WNBC.
Some call it a cable channel because it has secured carriage on 5.7 million cable homes, but I’ll call it a broadcast channel because WNBC will air it on its digital channel 4.2.
Whatever, the channel will offer short “pods” of lifestyle programming interrupted every 15 minutes for news and weather. Workhorse Chuck Scarborough will anchor an hour newscast at 7 p.m., in addition to his regular duties on the main channel.
“First and foremost, it’s all things New York, things that are newsworthy and interesting and engaging, and we mean New York in that universal and inclusive sense,” says WNBC’s Vickie Burns.
I’m not sure it’s a viable strategy, but it’s good to see a TV station, even one as atypical as WNBC, breaking new ground, trying something new.
Who knows? What works in New York may work in Atlanta or Cleveland or even Syracuse and Peoria.