Bob Ryan – The Weatherman Pushes Back

Moving is never without risk both to the talent and stations. I am happy because for the first time in a few years someone on-the-air in local news has some leverage in contract negotiations.

Bob Ryan is a weather fixture in Washington, DC. He’s been on the NBC owned station for around 30 years. Today he is my hero. On this pre-blizzard day when his station will probably show huge viewership he’s in the news.

From the Washington Post:

A dramatic change may be ahead for Washington’s weather forecasts. And it has nothing to do with Friday’s much anticipated snowstorm.

Bob Ryan, the most-watched television weather forecaster in Washington and a fixture at WRC (Channel 4) for nearly 30 years, is considering leaving the station and jumping to rival WJLA, people familiar with the discussions said Thursday.

bob-ryan-dc.jpgDon’t get me wrong. I am not happy because Bob may be leaving WRC. Moving is never without risk both to the talent and stations. I am happy because for the first time in a few years someone on-the-air in local news has some leverage in contract negotiations.

The trend in my business has been falling salaries, not rising. This is the first I’ve seen where that trend might be bucked!

What boss or owner doesn’t want to buy the same thing for less? Bob’s station is owned by NBC which has been very aggressive in that regard.

Some of the cuts anchors and reporters have were huge. Often they’ve been accompanied by added responsibilities and/or reduced benefits and security. All the cuts have been taken with impunity.

Bob Ryan is pushing back against bosses who’ve forgotten that can happen.

Granted, we’re talking about a guy who should receive no sympathy over compensation. If Bob Ryan isn’t making 7-figures he’s certainly in the high hundreds of thousands per year. As a longtime AFTRA member he’s got a very nice pension plan. This is not about whether his family will eat or not.

There will never be another Bob Ryan in Washington. The kind of following he has, built over years when TV stations had much more commanding audience numbers, just can’t happen today. He knows that. They know that.

I will be very curious how this turns out. So will every other high profile on-air performer. It’s more than idle curiosity.

Why I Went to Nashville – What I Found

I had a great time on my three day trip to Nashville. My hosts were nicer to me than I could ever expect.

There was a reason I went. It was my curiosity about what’s going on at WKRN. It is a Petri dish for a change in local TV news.

As I said before, the most obvious change has been to combine photographer and reporter into a video journalist or VJ. In and of itself, VJs or “one man bands” have been around for a while.

My own boss in Connecticut pointed out he had done this at NY1 sometime late in the last century. Small market stations do it all the time to save money.

Early in his career, one of our anchors in Connecticut was a ‘one man band’ in South Carolina. He didn’t relish doing both jobs because he felt he couldn’t concentrate on reporting if he also had to concentrate on shooting.

Having VJs can increase the body count of cameras on the street. Here’s what Michael Rosenblum, the guru of this technique said in an interview at

In a typical TV newsroom, there may be 70-100 employees while fielding 5-6 Betacams. This is as insane as having a newspaper with 70 reporters but only owning 5 pencils. The cameras are the pencils — they are the thing we make TV with. The thing that is actually on the air. When you only field 5 camera crews every day, every story must make air. It makes people very conservative. Very nervous. We can’t take risks. We can’t ever fail. Good journalism requires the ability to take a risk and fail from time to time. Creativity requires the ability to take a risk and fail.

I expected this increase in cameras to be what I noticed first. It wasn’t. The difference in what they’re doing in Nashville that hit me has more to do with reporting technique than anything else… and that was the nuance of this concept I missed from Connecticut. They go out to shoot stories differently and certainly go about the editing process differently.

Michael Rosenblum: In 1988, I was a producer with CBS News. But the more I produced TV news in the conventional way, the more I felt like I was involved in some kind of fraudulent activity. Producer, Reporter, Cameraman, Soundman, Editor. There was no way to get close to any character and no way to spend time on any story. So I quit. I bought a small video camera and went to live with a family in a Palestinian Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip. I stayed there for a month shooting every day. Even though I had been a TV producer for years, I had never touched a video camera before. (Union rules). But it was not hard to learn, and in a few days, I had some pretty good stuff. And by living with the family, 24/7 I got their trust and got a kind of access and intimacy that you just can’t achieve in conventional TV.

I watched 3-4 stories that I know were done by former photographers (one was old enough to be my contemporary!). By and large, they were great. One, about a girl with cancer and her team’s support for her, nearly brought me to tears.

The stories were more personal, more close-up. I was impressed by the better use of natural sound, allowing people to speak their emotions. There was no dropoff in quality from using little DV cameras and laptop edit stations.

I wish I could say I missed the reporter involvement, but I didn’t. I’m not sure one day is enough to make that judgment and high profile reporters can often bring additional weight and credibility to a story.

I didn’t see much hard news done this way and I’m not sure if the technique can work as well. It might be, for harder news, two man crews still offer an advantage.

Watching a few newscasts, I didn’t come off with the feeling that something was different. However, there were differences I would have probably latched onto over time: less repetition and more stories covered from more locations. People complain about repetition and missed coverage now.

Is this the coming trend? Absolutely. There’s no way to hold this back over the long term.

The question will be more how to let it happen. There are unions (I am a member of AFTRA, for instance) and contracts with work rules. No one wants to be squeezed out. No one wants to be marginalized. No one wants to be made less important or earn less money. Certainly no one wants to lose their job.

What is the obligation from company to employee, or employee to company, after a relationship of years or decades?

Though WKRN hasn’t cut back on staff while transitioning to this technology, it has to be something managers and owners look at. Certainly Michael Rosenblum, the force behind all this makes his disdain for our large legacy TV operations known.

This is a trend I will follow with great interest. But, like I said, whether I end up liking it or not, it will come. It can’t be stopped.

Men (and Women) In Black III

I was surprised to see a half page ad in today’s Hartford Courant from the air staff (members of AFTRA) at WFSB in Hartford. Their union negotiations have been contentious, to say the least, over the past few years.

Some long time employees have worked for Travelers Insurance, Post-Newsweek and now Meredith as station owners.

Travelers was local, which always makes a difference. And, at that time, the money was flowing in like water, to a station that had cost them a pittance to put on-the-air.

Post-Newsweek was a print oriented company and, though many people felt they weren’t as employee friendly as Travelers, the station continued to be a good place to work.

Meredith is also print oriented but it’s a different situation from Post-Newsweek. I am not involved in their labor negotiations, but I have heard that Meredith declared an impasse and implemented their last/best offer. There’s not much the union members can do short of walking out.

Today’s ad said the anchors and reporters would all wear black as a sign of solidarity – and they did. The ad also listed some of their grievances. A friend called me from their newsroom to say the tension was high and management had spoken to some on-the-air people.

Meredith is going to have to make a decision on how they value the folks on-the-air. Considering the preponderance of research that says, to a large extent, people watch TV stations because of whose on the air, I will be interested to see how far this goes.

This isn’t a grade school fight. Would Meredith really cut off their nose to spite their face? Will the union cripple the station by walking out and risking their own jobs at the same time? Are there more job actions to come or will cooler heads prevail? How can it benefit any company to be at war with their own staff?

I work for the competition and I want to win, but not by default against a crippled opponent. This time, the news will be from the newsroom.

(The Hartford Courant featured an article about the situation, which is attached below)

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