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Era of the celebrity broadcaster fades on local TV

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / April 3, 2008

The buyouts this week of three of WBZ-TV's highest-paid star reporters, including sportscasting legend Bob Lobel, could signal the end of the celebrity lineup at local news stations struggling with declining advertising revenues and shrinking viewership.

The departure of Lobel and others as part of stationwide cuts reflects a shift in strategies traditional media are taking as they struggle to compete in the new digital age. Television stations, newspapers, radio, magazines, and other media are getting squeezed by declining ad revenues, growing competition from the Internet and cable channels, and demands to invest millions in new digital technology.

Companies have increasingly migrated their advertising dollars away from traditional media, such as network and local TV stations and newspapers, and toward the Internet. According to TNS Media Intelligence, online advertising soared 60 percent to nearly $10 billion between 2003 and 2006, while TV ads increased only 20 percent to $68 billion during the same period.

Local TV stations, many of which have relied on the star anchor format, are among the hardest hit by the decline. Boston in particular has suffered from dwindling viewership, sliding from 2.39 million households in the 2004-2005 season to 2.37 million households for the 2006-2007 season, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Media analysts say they expect WBZ and other stations to increasingly follow the model of frontrunner WHDH-TV (Channel 7), which consistently depends less on celebrity anchors and more on cheaper, younger reporters to deliver the news.

Last month, WHDH disclosed it would replace "New England Today" anchor Jonathan Hall, who is in his late 40s, with Adam Williams, 27. (WHDH also faces a lawsuit filed last month by Michael Macklin, 56, who worked for WHDH for 13 years and said the station fired him last year after he complained he was discriminated against because of his age.)

"The TV programs won't be as personality-driven as they once were," said Chet Curtis, who coanchored WCVB-TV (Channel 5) evening news as a powerhouse team with Natalie Jacobson, his former wife, and now works for NECN. "TV stations decided they could find reasonably attractive people and pay them less money and attract if not the same audience, in some cases, a larger audience."

Moreover, media analysts said the increasingly fragmented media landscape makes it difficult to create local news celebrities and now stations are less willing to pay the six- and seven-figure salaries for top anchors.

"We're in a totally different world in 2008," said Philip S. Balboni, founder of New England Cable News and a former Channel 5 executive who in the early 1980s created the TV magazine show "Chronicle." "It's almost impossible to create a local news star today because viewership is so much reduced that no one gets the kind of exposure they did in the '70s, '80s, and early 1990s."

Lobel, in an interview yesterday, said: "All the people that they were branding back when I was in the business - Liz [Walker], Jack [Williams], and Natalie [Jacobson] - all that is over. No one is branded anymore. The stations brand themselves. That's just the way it is now."

The networks also have suffered, and both NBC News and ABC News recently cut staff.

CBS, meanwhile, has lagged for years behind rival networks, and its financial woes have only worsened since its split from Viacom in 2006: CBS News this week said it planned to trim about 1 percent of its nearly 1,200 employees, a move separate from the cuts at the local stations.

"CBS has had immense problems for some time," said Jim Thistle, director of broadcast journalism at Boston University. "The massive layoffs were going to show up first at CBS because they're the weakest."

The elimination of 32 staffers at Brighton-based WBZ - 15 percent of the workforce at Channel 4 - is among the largest cuts disclosed this week at CBS affiliates across the country. As part of the reductions, one station in Chicago is axing its star anchor, who is estimated to make about $2 million a year.

The cuts are the latest blow to Boston's TV market, which has already lost some top-name talent recently. The departure last summer of Jacobson, who dominated newscasts for 35 years, left a gaping hole in the local television landscape. Earlier this year, WBZ refused to renew veteran anchor Sara Underwood's contract, and as part of this week's cuts, long-time entertainment reporter Joyce Kulhawik and newsman Scott Wahle are leaving along with Lobel.

Walker, who anchored evening newscasts for WBZ from 1981 to 1999, stepped down from 25 years of daily news in 2005 to host a weekly community affairs program.

"It's entirely possible that the day of the very-high-salaried anchor is drawing to a close," Balboni said. "There are very few people left in that category."

For years, WBZ has ranked third in most newscasts. Over the last few months, station officials have made some key changes on air and off. General manager Ed Piette hired Jeff Kiernan last fall as the station's news director. The station began adding blue and yellow to its news graphics to stand out against competitors. And David Wade, formerly of WFXT-TV (Channel 25), was hired as the new morning coanchor.

WBZ spokeswoman Ro Dooley Webster declined to comment on the latest cuts, except to say: "These staff reductions were designed to help us have a more efficient and streamlined business model."

Webster said there are no dates set for departures and no replacements have been disclosed for Lobel, Kulhawik, and Wahle.

Johnny Diaz and Jackie MacMullan of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.

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