Local Talent Staying Local


KE Wichita anchor Jeff Herndon seems like a logical candidate to
move out of DMA No. 69 on the way to bigger things. Talent scouts say Herndon,
who anchors the 4 p.m., 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. news for the Gray Television
station, has the sort of appeal that would play well on a larger stage: smooth
on the set and in the field, natural delivery, appealing looks and voice.

Herndon, who's 34, turned down a job with a network-owned
station in a Top 5 market a few years ago. He won't rule out a move in the
future, but for now he says he's more than happy to work in his hometown
market, for managers with local roots, and for a company that has been able to
avoid furloughs and bankruptcy amidst the miserable local TV economy the last
few years.

While anchors have for decades hopscotched the U.S. every few
years in pursuit of the next big contract, an increasing number-including
Herndon-are less eager to leave the safety of a smaller market.

"It used to be the norm to make a move just for the sake
of making a move," Herndon says. "But people are a lot more cautious about it
now. If it's not an ideal fit, they have no problem not making it."

Anchors, station executives and agents speak of a
landmark shift in local television. An increasing sentiment among on-air
talent, burned by layoffs and corporate instability the last few years, sees
them opting for the bird-in-hand nature of their current station-even if
greater exposure and pay may await in a larger market.

"I've always said, if you find the right market, stay
there. But they don't always listen to me," says Sandra Connell, president of
placement and coaching firm Talent Dynamics. "But what I'm seeing going on
around the country is, [anchors] are evaluating more, and a lot of them are
happy just to stay put."


Talent scouts and agents have had a slow couple of years,
with numerous stations not filling vacated positions in the face of the
crippling recession. But as automotive advertising continues to pick up and
some $1.8 billion in political spending is forecasted to be added to local TV
coffers this year, according to the Television Bureau of Advertising, stations
have begun not only to fill talent positions but hire new anchors to helm
fledgling newscasts. Connell, for one, has 50 requests for talent on file right
now, more than double the 20 she had at the same point last year.

"There's been a break in the logjam the past few months,"
says WPXI Pittsburgh VP/General Manager Ray Carter, who tapped former WUSA
Washington anchor Todd McDermott for WPXI's morning news in January. "People
are hiring again."

But while the Top 10 markets have traditionally offered
anchor salaries reaching well into the seven figures, the great reset of the
local TV economy has resulted in more modest pay all around. An RTDNA/Hofstra University
survey revealed that reporters saw the biggest pay cuts in the local TV
business last year, with salaries down 13.3% year-over-year. Next-hardest-hit
were anchors, with an 11.5% paycheck paring. It was the first time the survey
reported an overall drop in TV salaries in the 15 years it has been conducted.

The study's authors said the "upper end of the food
chain" was most affected by sliced wages. With a narrower gap in pay between
large and smaller markets, anchors are less enticed to move to a job in the big
city. "It used to be, the bigger the market, the bigger the pay," says WFTV
Orlando News Director Bob Jordan. "It's not necessarily the case anymore."

With the recession sending major broadcasters
such as Tribune, Freedom Communications and Young Broadcasting stumbling into
bankruptcy protection, hiring managers say that anchors and reporters are
paying way more attention to the state of companies that might be their next
landing point. Whether a company has been through (or remains in) Chapter 11,
is mandating furloughs or has gone through heavy layoffs all play a bigger part
in an anchor's next career move-or a refusal
to move.

"People aren't just looking at the job and the station,"
says WNEM Flint-Saginaw VP/General Manager Al Blinke. "They're looking at the
company: Is it on the edge, or is it stable enough to take care of its people?
People are asking a lot more questions about the state of the company than they
used to."

Besides stable parents, reporters are also more
interested in a company's journalistic chops. Cuts to pay and personnel have
thinned the reporter herd considerably; what remains is an idealistic group
that's increasingly intent on doing solid "Big J" journalism, as one Top 10
market anchor puts it. Outfits with strong news reputations like Belo, Cox and
Hearst pop up on more wish lists than before, say some industry watchers, as
well as markets such as Austin, Seattle
and Boston that
are thought to have savvy viewers.

For many anchors, the anxiety about moving on and up is
rooted in matters as mundane as real estate. With much of the country's
homeowners still reeling from the recent mortgage crisis, local TV
professionals are often squeamish about the prospect of selling a house they
may have dramatically overpaid for after landing that fat contract in the more
lucrative days of local TV. "My ideal job candidate is a renter," quips WFTV's Jordan.

That trend is not limited to talent, with department
heads and general managers often suffering from the same strain of buyer remorse.
"They say they'd like to move, but just don't know if they can sell their
home," says Frank N. Magid VP of Talent Placement Services Barbara Frye. "It's
not as simple to get people to move as it once was."


Not everybody is buying into this better-safe
philosophy, however. As long as the country is divided into multiple television
markets, there will be anchors and reporters seeking bigger stages. Several
station insiders point out that it's a banner time for younger reporters to
land in a large market without toiling in a succession of midsize markets, as
the big-city stations frequently find the newbies' modest salary requirements
more in line with the new economics of station TV.

And many aspiring reporters still see moving every few
years as an essential part of their endgame toward the major-market anchor
desk. "Going from market to market is definitely something I see myself doing,"
says Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo senior Kayla Smith, a part-timer at KSBY. "I look
forward to the traditional moving up the pyramid."

Furthermore, multiple aspiring reporters say the parent
company still lags behind market size and job description on their job-seeking
wish list. "As far as looking at ownership groups in deciding where to jump, I
don't look at it much," says KNDU Kennewick, Wash., first-year reporter Chris

But for the more senior set, who have lived and perhaps
struggled through the current economic realities, they're doing considerable
homework before making a move, crunching the cost-of-living numbers and
scrutinizing job security issues-and increasingly deciding that the best career
move might be the one you never make.

so much uncertainty in the world we live in; people are cautious about taking
jobs in larger markets," says WNEM's Blinke. "I think they're seeing real value
in being the big fish in the small pond, instead of the small fish in the big

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.