Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ownership

by Ed Dague
timesunion.com Blogs
March 18, 2009

In 1984, in the middle of the strike by technicians at WRGB that would cause me to quit the station, a manager pointed to the strikers walking their picket line and said to me, “Who do these people think they are to attack an institution like Channel Six?” The question really troubled me as it involved the whole concept of ownership. It seemed to me that the traditions and history that had made the station an institution were owned more by the people walking the picket line than by the investment firm that had purchased the station a few months earlier. They weren’t attacking the institution, I thought. They were the institution.

There is an inherent conflict in the whole business of broadcasting. Capitalists buy stations to make a profit. Their interest is in squeezing the largest possible profit out of any station operation. They have a government granted monopoly on a broadcast frequency but no real obligations attached to it. Capitalism requires owners to minimize their contributions to the public good in order to maximize their profits. Greed trumps public needs and interests all across broadcasting but I know of no better way to structure things.

What many don’t know is the amount of money that was involved in local TV broadcasting at its peak. It stunned my lawyer and me when we confronted it twenty-five years ago. “I can’t let Dague go across town,” the WRGB general manager told my lawyer. “He could take three, maybe even four rating points with him, which is over a million and a half dollars a year and I can’t let that happen.” It turned out that in 1984, each Nielsen rating point in a local newscast represented over $450,000 in potential annual revenue. WRGB was paying me about $40-thousand a year.

Back then, when the top local newscasts consistently got double-digit ratings, a station manager could imagine losing three or four rating points. Today, that could be the station’s entire audience. Stations now have competition for viewers from the Internet and cable and the whole business has changed. No newscast can draw a twenty plus rating these days.

I have no idea what an individual rating point is worth to a station today. But, there is no question that the profits have diminished greatly. So has the quality of the contribution to the public good. It has to be terribly frustrating for the reporters and producers who still have jobs. My guess is that it troubles many of the managers as well. They understand what has happened to the quality of their effort but they dare not talk about it.

It is difficult to argue against profit in America. It is dangerous to question the prevailing concepts of ownership or to challenge anyone’s right to maximize profit in a free market. My first experience with those truths came in 1970 when I objected to General Electric Broadcasting’s decision to break precedent and air political commercials during newscasts. I wanted to take my case to the FCC but was told that any letter to them from me would cost me my job. So, I went along with it and produced the first newscast in town carrying a political commercial — for Nelson Rockefeller. Now, of course, political ads routinely pollute newscasts. There was a time when a candidate had to make actual news or grant an interview to get a message into a newscast. Now, anybody can buy their way on and never be interviewed. Maybe that is part of the reason why the viewers left.

Copyright Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation

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