The weak economy and audience fragmentation are flattening the salary structure for news talent at TV stations, says one of TV’s top agents. While compensation for the “rank and file” is holding steady, the big-market anchor salaries are falling. And the perks are disappearing, too. If you still have a clothing allowance, he says, you’re one of a dwindling few.
Broadcast newsrooms have been hard hit by layoffs and budget reductions in this recession, but no one has turned off all the lights just yet.
Stations are still hiring. People quit, get fired and retire. And to seize the opportunities, job seekers often turn to an agent for that extra edge in getting in the door and negotiating a contract. Station management and networks will also look to agents for help in finding the right news talent.
Not all agents are created equal. They can run the spectrum from small boutique agencies to larger ones with clients numbering in the hundreds.
On the larger end of the spectrum is the Napoli Management Group, based in Beverly Hill, Calif. Mendes Napoli, founder and president of the agency, has been in the business for 16 years and in TV news for 38. Prior to opening the firm, he worked as a news director at a number of stations and as VP of news for two TV stations groups, Scripps and Hubbard.
Napoli Management’s current roster of 430 clients includes anchors, reporters, weathercasters and sportscasters. In addition to TV stations, they work at all the major news and sports networks.
In this interview with TVNewsCheck Contributing Editor Tom Petner, Napoli talks about the market for news talent at TV stations and the agent’s role in it.
An edited transcript:
As television stations deal with audience fragmentation, soft advertising and revenues, what has been the impact on salaries?
Major salaries are definitely coming down, especially for the more highly paid people in our business — anybody making over $250,000. I see a lot of them as either flat, down or coming down. We’re not going to be able to sustain the kind of high-end salaries that we once had. That said, many still make what we would consider a lot of money.
A salary of $250,000 sounds like a lot of money to me.
Yes, it is. There are still even some in the over-$1 million category. But how many people can we have left in our industry that make that? Perhaps 20 or less.
What about the salaries for reporters and other types of news people you represent?
For the rank and file, the general reporters, salaries have not really come down, although a lot of them have been frozen. The new jobs opening up seem to be in the same range they’ve always been. So if a station was paying a reporter $60,000 or $70,000 before, they tend to still be paying that. The base hasn’t really changed. It’s really the upper end that’s changed.
How many of your clients have had to take cuts?
Some. Most have seen their salaries remain flat on renewals. Out of our group of 400-plus clients, we’ve had no more than 15 people take pay cuts. Again, bigger people with larger salaries are the ones taking the cuts. For example, almost all of the major news anchors at the Fox O&Os have taken some sort of pay cut as they’ve come up.
What about expectations going into salary negotiations? What do your clients and management expect?
Everybody’s pretty realistic. Certainly our clients have been realistic. We’ve helped them have a good perspective on what’s happening. People are happy to still have their jobs and understand the station revenue picture is shrinking tremendously. That means, if you’re going to keep your job, you’re probably not going to move forward in salary. It helps the level of understanding because everybody in our business is covering the biggest recession we’ve seen in our lifetime. So here you’re covering this recession, living it and then impacted by it as well. It all works together in understanding what’s going on.
Why does someone need an agent when salaries are flat or falling?
They need us more than ever. The business is in a tremendous transition period and while salaries may not be growing, the competition for opportunities is tougher than ever. More people are competing for fewer jobs. When you see a former anchor from Los Angeles going to Buffalo for a morning anchor job, it puts a good picture on how difficult it is for people to come by jobs right now.
The advantage you have with a big agency is that we know where all the jobs are. We know when those jobs come up before anybody else does. We know what they’re looking for and how much they can pay. So we can match up our clients rather quickly. Anyone trying to do that on their own cannot access that information. There’s no database, and no place to go and find out all the inside information the big firms have. At our firm, there are eight of us who make a minimum of four, five, to 10 news director calls a day. In the course of a week, we reach almost every major news director in the country. We know what’s going on.
Has the economy changed how you represent a client?
We have to react quicker and get our clients in front of these news directors immediately. Technology has indeed changed how we do that. For example, I was just on the phone with a news director who needed a very specific kind of person. As we talked, I was able to let him view the work of a client that I was suggesting for the job. We had a discussion about him, rather than waiting the two or three weeks we all used to, when we sent out a DVD or a tape through the mail. So we’ve worked hard on just being able to get our clients in front of these people and get a response immediately. Agents have to embrace the new technology just like the stations.
What’s the biggest mistake made in a negotiation?
It’s pushing too hard and not understanding the situation at a given station or network when you’re negotiating. The second thing is creating false leverage by trying to create an impression that your clients have other opportunities when they really don’t. That probably upsets managers more than anything else does.
There was a time in anchor negotiations, when fringe benefits were a factor, everything from clothing allowances to schedule changes. Has that changed?
Definitely. I really don’t see many other perks left for them.
The most common thing left has been the clothing allowance and that is fast going away, and in many cases being rolled into salaries. I just did a deal, a renewal this morning, where they took the money for clothing and they upped the salary by that amount. There’s no longer a separate account. Stations just feel like they’ve got to have these one-line budget items instead of multiple items and lines. The contracts themselves are pretty much the same. Each company has their own forms they use and each contract has its own special clauses, but negotiations primarily come down to job description, money and term.
Sometimes a contract negotiation can be protracted and contentious. Does that carry over once the negotiations are done?
If you’re in a difficult negotiation, it’s usually because the station really wants that person. They don’t go through all the trouble if they’re not really interested. While it can be difficult and the back and forth can sometimes be a little harsh, I’ve never seen it affect the client’s abilities and the client’s status at the organization.
With whom do you generally deal with? Has that changed over the last 10 years?
The biggest difference now is that we tend do anchor deals, and deals for main weather and sports, with general managers, more than we used to. A lot of general managers now want to be involved, particularly with their front-line talent. General managers were always involved, but the news director would put the deal together, particularly in the medium-to-bigger-size markets. Now the general managers are much more involved because of the money.
Agents have sometimes been criticized for overstepping their bounds and periodically stepping into editorial territory. How do you respond to such criticism?
When I was running news departments, agents would call and say, you know you should do this or you should do that. We believe at our firm that we need to help our people and not the station. But we need to listen to what the station is looking for. So we often talk to the news director about what their expectations are of our clients, and we try to help our clients navigate through that. If it’s an unreasonable expectation, we may speak up, but generally we feel like the best thing we can do is help our clients be a good model citizen in that newsroom.
Is there a company you find easier or more difficult to do business with?
We certainly deal with all of them. It’s all about relationships. Certain general managers are harder to deal with, and certain news directors are harder to deal with, but countrywide, I wouldn’t say any one company is more difficult than the other. Right now there are things happening in individual companies with wage freezes, and cutbacks that can differentiate how each company approaches this recession. It’s a difficult environment for everybody. It’s no more fun on their end to say they can’t give a raise or they have to cut somebody’s pay than it is for our clients or us to be told that.
In this age of multimedia journalism, are there some hot- button skills that news managers are looking for these days?
When all is said and done, it’s still the same basic premise. People look for strong people who perform well on television and who pop out of the screen. People want people that connect well with the audience. That has not changed throughout our long time in this business. An anchor who comes across to the viewers as warm and friendly and comfortable to watch and yet authoritative will always be in demand. Reporters who know how to really get to the essence of a story and tell a great story will also always be in demand. I don’t think it’s changed.
Some of the skill sets have changed. Certainly you can’t be a young person in this business and not know how to shoot, edit and all of those things now, but those are secondary skill sets to what we really look for and good talent is still in high demand. It’s not yet the norm in our business that a reporter shoots and edits. The demand is still for good reporters, good storytellers. If you look at all of the hires that have happened over the years, these are all people that someone feels really could make a difference at their station. That’s more important now because there aren’t as many jobs.
What advice would you give to a young person who doesn’t have an agent? What would you tell them in handling themselves or in handling their dealings with management?
It’s very difficult to handle your own affairs. We hire stockbrokers to invest our money and financial planners to help us develop plans for our 401(k)s and finances. Your career needs to have a partner as well. If you’re serious about working in a newsroom, it’s more difficult than ever to navigate your future. Everybody needs a partner.
So when you hire an agent, whoever it is, it should be somebody you trust, somebody you like dealing with and, most importantly, someone who’s there for you and who’s responsive to your calls and needs. It should be someone who talks you through all the situations that you may face day in and day out. If it’s somebody who doesn’t return your calls, that’s slow, that seems too busy for you, I wouldn’t have a person like that working for me.
At what point in your career should you hire an agent?
You don’t need an agent to get your first job, but, after you’ve landed your first job, you should start looking for somebody. You might be making $20,000 now, but at your next job, perhaps $40,000 or $50,000 salary is possible. So it’s well worth it.
Some have suggested local news is dead and others say it’s just changing. What’s your take on local news?
There’s a difference between what we read in our industry trades and what’s happening in reality and there’s an even bigger difference between what’s happening in the top markets and the rest of the country.
The business has changed dramatically in New York, L.A., and Chicago along with the ratings, revenue and profit numbers. You now have this tremendous rethinking of how they approach their news and how they do their business, etc., but when you get outside of the top three or four markets, there’s still a basic core business that’s alive and well.
I was just in Boston, for example, and I had meetings with two of the general managers and they’re still talking about becoming No. 1 on their newscasts, and how they can position themselves for the future. They’re still all about their shows and their talent. I’m not saying the big markets are not, but they have a different set of profit problems and you’re seeing more of a change in their operational philosophy. Let’s have everybody edit. Let’s have everybody shoot. Let’s have them do all these kinds of things you might hear at NBC.
Newsrooms are still a vibrant part of their communities. They’re still reporting on news that is relevant to their viewers. If you go to Cleveland, Indianapolis or Pittsburgh, the news is still relevant. We’re still talking about a strong connection to the communities. That may be more difficult to do in New York or Los Angles, or maybe more splintered in New York and L.A., but outside of there, stations are still playing an important role in their communities.