For years, local TV stations around the US have bought out the contracts of well-regarded veteran newscasters and replaced them with younger, lesser-known faces. With viewership declining and competition from cable and online outlets rising, stations are focused on cutting costs.
So the recent decision by CBS affiliate WBZ-TV in Boston to buy out the contracts of sportscaster Bob Lobel and arts reporter Joyce Kulhawik should not have been much of a surprise to viewers. Yet for media commentators and communications pros in the area, the news still came as a shock.
In one of the biggest sports towns in the country - New Englanders would, of course, say the greatest - surely it seemed that the iconic Lobel, who once brought legends Larry Bird, Bobby Orr, and Ted Williams together for a sit-down interview, would never get the ax. Kulhawik, meanwhile, had reported on Boston's arts community since 1981 and many viewers thought she provided a competitive advantage for the station.
Yet for station management, the layoffs, which affected 20 people from a workforce of 220, are simply business - unfortunate, but necessary. WBZ-TV did not return requests for comment. For some communications pros, however, the cutting of experienced newscasters is a new low, says Mike Lawrence, SVP of corporate responsibility and crisis/ issues management at Cone and a 26-year broadcast TV veteran.
"This is a naked example of the cruelty and inhumanity of the people who run broadcast television stations in America," he says. "I can tell you 10 other stories just like this... where veteran people were surprised by either being terminated or having their contracts not renewed."
Certainly, Web sites and blogs, as well as cable TV, provide vast amounts of information on the Red Sox or anything else Boston viewers may want. As a result, notes Lawrence, they are hastening the declining viewership of local news. Younger viewers are also less likely to have grown up with local news as a part of their daily media consumption, and therefore a Lobel or Kulhawik may not mean as much for them as older viewers, he explains.
That same trend is playing out on a national level. The "cult of celebrity" still exists to some degree with NBC's Brian Williams or CBS' Katie Couric, even if they lack the drawing power of a Walter Cronkite or Peter Jennings, Lawrence adds.
Local news also, for the most part, lacks depth, says Ed Cafasso, SVP and MD of MS&L Boston and a former reporter at the Boston Herald. It also, oddly enough, lacks local news, often pulling video feed from corporate networks on fires in other cities or national stories - items that offer the dual benefits of being economical and highly visual.
However, by letting go of newscasters with deep experience, stations are harming their core competency and means of differentiation from alternative news sources, argues Cafasso.
"I believe that trends are very cyclical," he suggests. "At some point, God knows when, I'm optimistic that news consumers will demand more depth, more context, and the pendulum will swing back again."
EchoDitto principal Brian Reich, who specializes in new-media issues, says local TV networks that hope to compete with Web sites by, for instance, running shorter news segments and promoting their online content, are playing a game they can't win. Although celebrity anchors no longer draw viewers as they once did, exclusive content still does, and local TV news outlets can offer video and access that online outlets or cable channels can't match, he says.
"News organizations will make more money in the business by producing more and better content," Reich says. "Stripping out the experience and context of the people who have been in the news operation a long time will only undermine that."