Local TV reporters and anchors, even long-timers in major markets, are being asked to sign contracts with onerous terms. And since it’s no secret that management is looking to cut costs wherever it can, reporters and anchors are, more often than not, acquiescing.
It’s A Buyer’s Market For Local TV Talent
With more than 30 years of experience, a major market TV reporter (let’s call him Max) was willing to kiss his job goodbye, rather than accept the terms of the contract his station had offered.
The one-year contract had “windows” every few months during which the he could be fired with few obligations on the station’s part.
Max didn’t bite. Experienced, confidant and willing to walk, Max held out for better terms — and got them.
But, apparently, Max is one of the few whose story ends up that well.
More reporters and anchors, even long-timers in major markets like Max, are being asked to sign contracts with onerous terms.
And since it’s no secret that management is looking to cut costs wherever it can, reporters and anchors are, more often than not, acquiescing, according to the news professionals and their reps.
“A lot of decisions run on fear,” Max says. “People who are afraid of losing their job will sign.”
Mendes Napoli, of Napoli Management Group, a leading talent rep firm, says that contract negotiation have always been adversarial. “There’s always been a struggle between us, our clients and the managers in terms of what everyone wants in a contract.”
But coming out of the Great Recession and the resetting of station economics, Napoli and others say, management is taking a harder line that is being reflected in the stingier contracts.
“There is no question that certain managements and groups feel like they have to have more control, and they are pushing for more control,” says Napoli. “They are less flexible.”
While some managers pushing contracts with “windows,” others are offering deals that are multiyear in name only.
A three-year contract may be three, one-year contracts strung together so stations aren’t liable for big payouts should they let the talent go early.
It’s also becoming more common for contracts to include furlough clauses, meaning air talent is subject to taking unpaid days off work at the station’s discretion.
And that’s not all.
Stations are taking their time on contract renewals. They may not even broach the issue until close to the renewal deadline, which triggers a whole other set of issues, from prolonged negotiating periods during which the talent works without a contract to figuring out whether a raise (if there is one) would be retroactive.
Rick Carr, a Denver-based news contract negotiator, says one of his clients, an anchor in a top-40 market, didn’t get a renewal offer until a week before her existing contract was set to expire.
Negotiations took several months, meaning the anchor worked without a contract for several months.
Once the deal was sewn up, Carr then had to tackle whether his client would get the raise retroactively. The anchor and the station ended up somewhere in the middle, he says.
Another one of Carr’s clients worked four months contract-free.
“It used to be that if you were a good anchor and management wanted to keep you around, they would come to you six months or more before your contract was going to expire because they didn’t want you to suddenly disappear from the air,” Carr says.
“Now, because of the financial realities for the business, management is getting more and more cautious about committing to a new deal. The longer they can wait before giving someone a raise is a win for them.
“If you’re an anchor, you might not hear something until a month or two out and even then you may have to go to your bosses,” he says. “And if you’re a reporter you might not hear anything.”
Living like that is not easy.
“It’s been pretty harsh,” said another major market reporter, who has already accepted pay cuts and has yet to hear whether he’ll be offered a new contract when his existing one is up in a few months.
Even if he is offered a new contract, he says his expectations are not high, but will likely take whatever is offered. “There are only so many jobs in TV news,” he says.
TV union representatives don’t like what they are seeing.
Mary Cavallarro, assistant national director, news and broadcast, for the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, says contract boilerplate is evolving in a management-friendly way at a quickening pace. “You’re more bound to employment than guaranteed it,” she says.
Cavallarro says it’s not just the economy straining relations between talent and management. “I think it’s because there are a lot of people competing for so few jobs.
“The leverage is really with the employer…. Once [employees] achieved a certain level, they will have to accept [management terms] or leave town.”
Max says there’s something to be said for calling stations’ bluff. “They are trying to pretend that we’re all interchangeable,” he says.
But TV news is still about wooing audiences with people they like and trust, he says. “The very reason that people were signed to contracts is because they bring a sense of stability and comfort to the newscast.
“If they had their druthers, they would hire all low-paid talent, but every time they try it doesn’t work out because the job is not as easy as it looks.”
But management also knows that many reporters and anchors get more out of the job than money and it uses that to its advantage.
“I still like what I do so I take solace in that,” says the reporter who has accepted cuts and is waiting for a renewal offer. “But it’s sad. It’s saying that my job won’t love me back.”
Air Check by Diana Marszalek is a bi-monthy column about local TV news and the people that make it happen. Marszalek can be reached at [email protected]
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