Now that stations are recovering from the budget-slashing days of the recession, many are getting back into the sky with helicopters. There are between 100 and 120 TV news choppers today, compared to about 180 that were in operation pre-recession in 2007. One station that’s added its own bird is NBC-owned WCAU Philadelphia.
TV News Choppers Flying High Once Again
In the early 2000s, KXTV Sacramento, Calif., covered nearly every local Friday night high school football game from the sky. The segment, “Friday Night Football,” was the only one of its kind in the market providing stunning aerial shots of the various games.
But when the economy tanked in 2008, one of the first casualties was the helicopter. Friday night football games were never the same again.
That’s all about to change. Last month, the Gannett-owned ABC affiliate in the country’s 20th DMA signed a new lease with Helicopters Inc. to restore its eyes in the sky. And while the helicopter will be used sparingly, it will deliver a look-in on local football games for the first time in five years.
“Helicopters are an extremely important tool in covering news in a market like this,” says Maria Barrs, president-GM of KXTV. “While there are a lot of other good tools out there, there’s nothing that can provide the perspective that a helicopter can.”
KXTV’s return to the air reflects an overall uptick in the electronic newsgathering helicopter business.
Tom Wagner, VP of Helicopters Inc., a leading provider of ENG helicopters, says 2013 marks the first year since the recession that the number of stations with his helicopters has increased.
“We’re not back to where we were in 2007, but we’re going up,” he says.
In addition to KXTV, Wagner expects to add another station to his company’s portfolio in the next few months.
There are somewhere between 100 and 120 news helicopters in the sky today, according to multiple ENG helicopter vendors. That’s compared to about 180 that were in operation pre-recession in 2007.
Helicopters Inc., is responsible for about 60 of those choppers scattered across the country today. Other vendors include U.S. Helicopters, which advertises on its website that it has 30 units operating; Sky Helicopters, which operates five aircraft; and two California-based companies, Helinet and Angel City Air, which supply news choppers for the TV stations in Los Angeles.
While KXTV is an example of a station that got rid of its helicopter when the recession hit, several stations instead opted to enter into joint agreements with competitors and share a copter.
“Those sharing agreements were a knee-jerk reaction to the recession,” says Ken Pyatt, president of Sky Helicopters. “It cut the costs in half.”
In Denver (DMA 17), for example, the market’s four news affiliates share one, logo-free helicopter that’s designed for the market’s mile-high elevation. Since 2009, Gannett’s KUSA (NBC) and Scripps’ KMGH (ABC) have shared a copter. CBS’s KCNC and FoxCo Acquisition’s KDVR joined about a year later. Today, the four stations rotate who controls the helicopter each quarter. All four stations share the same video feed.
In terms of choosing assignments, KCNC News Director Tim Wieland says whoever is operating the helicopter that quarter has the last word.
“Everyone is good about communicating about where we want to go, and for the most part, it’s pretty obvious where we should be,” Wieland says.
KXTV’s Barrs says the station won’t be using its new helicopter on a daily basis like it used to back in the mid-2000s. To that end, she hopes to find a partner — either the market’s CBS or Fox affiliates, which are currently without a helicopter — to bring down the operating cost, which can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.
“We’re very open to sharing with another station,” she says. “This is not an inexpensive tool.”
While sharing makes financial sense and looks good on paper, it doesn’t come without logistical problems. Like Denver, the Washington and Miami markets have sharing agreements where the stations rotate control of the helicopter.
“It can become awkward,” says Pyatt. “These guys have very competitive personalities.”
Wagner says turnover at stations can also make it challenging.
“When at a conference table, theoretically it’s a great idea, but it’s not as easy as everyone makes it out to be when put into practice,” he says.
That some stations opting to go it alone with their own copter is another sign that the economy — and the ENG helicopter business — are turning around. Both Pyatt and Wagner say they’ve started to receive calls from clients expressing interest in getting out of agreements and owning their own helicopter for competitive reasons.
Earlier this year NBC decided that it needed its own helicopters at its biggest stations in New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia after four years under an agreement to share a chopper with the Fox O&Os in those markets.
“We believe that journalists should act independently of each other and at the end of the day, this is a competitive business,” says Anzio Williams, WCAU Philadelphia VP of news. “The more competitive it is, the more viewers benefit.”
Helinet, which used to operate nationwide before the recessions, and then decided to just lease helicopters in the Los Angeles market, says it has experienced an increase in the amount of hours its stations are flying.
Leasing from ENG helicopter vendors is like ordering from an á la carte menu. Broadcasters determine what size aircraft they need, and then what types of equipment they want inside it. All vendors provide a pilot and can even provide a photojournalist who can do reporting for the station.
Once the helicopter configuration is determined, stations need to budget for how many hours they want to fly each month. In big markets, like Los Angeles, stations can fly upwards to 150 hours per month, says Alex Giuffrida, EVP at Helinet, which leases three choppers in that market.
“The smaller stations fly to the news, but in big markets like L.A., they fly to find the news,” he says.
Giuffrida estimates the cost to be about $1,000 per hour on average. So at the highest end, stations could pay about $1.8 million annually. On the lower end, stations could shoot anywhere from 35 to 40 hours per month, which calculates to an annual cost of nearly $500,000.
Wagner says when the recession hit in 2008, the vendors in the business were nervous to find out whether ENG helicopters were still considered a vital part of the business.
“We’re really glad to learn that, in real short order, it was a need, not a want” he says. “This is still a viable business.”
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