TV News Turnover Has Viewers Wondering What's Happening

All over the country, fewer viewers are watching local TV news and those who do are asking themselves more often than ever, “Who ARE these people?” when tuning in.

That’s because in the business where I used to make my living, we’re seeing a wave of turnover like never before. Contracts of the best known personalities, particularly news and sports anchors, are not being renewed. We have seen this in New York, where NBC isn’t renewing veteran anchor Sue Simmons and her reported $5 million contract. In Detroit, several top personalities like Don Shane, Robbie Timmons and Jerry Hodak have left WXYZ-TV’s broadcasts in recent months.

There are several reasons for this trend, as a recent story by Bill Shea of Crain’s Detroit Business explained. Here’s an excerpt:

“Increases in profit also are coming, at least in part, from smaller salaries. Television revenue — which is linked to viewership ratings — has been strained by competition for viewers from cable and the Internet, said Matt Friedman, a media observer, local TV veteran and co-founder of Farmington Hills-based public relations firm Tanner Friedman.

‘Corporations still put pressure on local stations to send profits to headquarters,’ he said.
That pressure to make money in an atmosphere of lower ratings and less advertising means station managers have to make cuts — and the big paychecks for veteran on-air talent are obvious targets.

‘What we’re seeing in Detroit mirrors what we’re seeing around the country in local television: When the contracts are up, they’re either not renewed or anchors are retiring,” he said. “What we’re seeing much more of is a generation of the highest-paid talent at TV stations retiring in their 60s when their contracts are up.’

And because stations have to scrap and claw for audience and revenue, the business sometimes isn’t as enjoyable for longtime staffers, Friedman said.

‘They’re not having as much fun as they used to have. They can go on to do something else,’ he said.

In the midst of this turmoil, there is some good news for one TV news veteran whose retirement is actually a retirement. After 27 years at Fox’s WJBK-TV here in Detroit, street reporter Bill Gallagher’s last day on the air is Friday. He is moving back to his native Western New York to be close to his daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren.

I had the privilege of learning from Bill as an intern, once upon a time. Intelligent, witty and a model storyteller, Bill has been a master at taking important news that, on the surface, seemed like “bad TV” and transforming them into television. A former elected official, he has excelled at political and legal stories that many TV types would consider “just print stories.” Bill also showed me how a sense of humor is vital to a career in broadcast news.

All of us at Tanner Friedman will miss working with Bill on client stories, as he has always been fair, even with the “tough stuff.” But his friends and viewers should all celebrate his opportunity to leave TV news on his own terms – a feat that is increasingly rare.