When Jon Burnett retired from KDKA-TV last month, he got a big sendoff worthy of a television personality who had been coming into our homes for 37 years.
But he was just one of 24 people who left the station this spring as part of a company-wide buyout offered to CBS employees across the country. Mostly unknown to viewers, these people worked on the studio crew, and in accounting, and in other production jobs behind the scenes that help report the news, produce it and sell it.
Their departures come at a perilous moment for local television. KDKA has been part of a national move to make CBS-owned stations leaner. And Pittsburgh’s NBC affiliate, WPXI-TV, most likely will have equity investors as its new owners sometime this year.
Until now, local television largely has remained immune to the ongoing financial issues that newspapers have faced. (And there are more of those to come: See the Post-Gazette’s ongoing failed contract negotiations with the Newspaper Guild).
TV continues to make money, but the industry has hit a different type of inflection point: Companies that own local TV stations are consolidating, so they have more leverage with the networks. And the networks are trying to get bigger to defend their turf against new media companies.
Check out the comments this month from Shari Redstone, a media heiress whose family has majority stakes in both CBS and Viacom: Even if those companies merged, she said, the new media giant would still need to take on a third partner such as Discovery Communications in order to stay competitive.
The networks are worried about the technology companies that have started sneaking up on them.
Live sports remains television’s greatest advantage, but the networks are starting to lose their grip on that: Amazon will be streaming the NFL’s Thursday night games this fall, YouTube will be streaming baseball after the All-Star break and Twitter already streams Major League Soccer.
It’s enough to make a network media mogul — or a local TV viewer — freak out.
What does all this mean for viewers in Pittsburgh?
New owners for local TV stations could mean a shift in priorities. WPXI has been part of the Cox Enterprises chain, which has stations in Atlanta, Boston and other cities that reach a total of 31 million viewers. Apollo Global Management, a private equity company with $280 billion in assets, reportedly offered about $3 billion to buy the stations from Cox. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took comment on the sale and is expected to rule later this year.
Private equity companies like Apollo have already come under fire for their profit-minded ownership of newspapers. In local television, the same issue could arise. Changes designed to maximize profits could directly impact the quality of the journalism.
An executive at WPXI declined to comment on that subject while the FCC review is pending. He referred me to a spokeswoman from Cox, who also declined to comment.
Meanwhile at KDKA, buyouts have already led to downsizing in the newsroom.
Corporate CBS has been quiet about its motivation for the buyouts or how many people ended up taking them. The offer reportedly went to anyone in the company whose age and years of experience added up to 80 — meaning they were trying to get rid of the older, higher-paid employees, perhaps with the goal of making the company more attractive for a merger.
(And in an unrelated move, KDKA’s general manager announced his departure after less than a year in Pittsburgh.)
KDKA’s executives wouldn’t tell me who took the buyout, how many took it or what the changes mean for the station’s future. On the last day of May, the station simply ran a list of the departing employees’ names — many of whom had been telling news stories in Pittsburgh for decades.
The list included Aviva Radbord, a producer and weekend assignment editor, who had become an institution at the station after 44 years. Executive producer Bill Shissler had been at the station 33 years, assistant news director Cathy Noschese was there 32 years, and Lori Sperling, a photojournalist, had been with KDKA for 35 years.
In all, the station lost literally hundreds of years of combined experience.
“Each of them has made countless contributions to the lasting legacy of KDKA,” news anchor Susan Koeppen said at the end of the news on May 31, “and their impact here will be felt for years to come.”
Their departures will be felt, too. The buyouts represent a tremendous loss of institutional knowledge about Pittsburgh and the region, all in one night.
These pressures on local television news threaten to cause major impacts on the quality of information consumers see, and they could start to compound each other. As owners look for increased profits by eliminating higher-paid employees who have been on the job for decades, stations will be forced to replace them with younger, less experienced people — if they replace them at all.
Decisions made in boardrooms far from Pittsburgh already are affecting our local news sources, and as these pressures grow, the problem will only worsen.
Andrew Conte writes the On Media column with support from The Heinz Endowments. You may find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at PittsburghPublicEditor@gmail.com.