Sunday, July 12, 2009

Cuts at BT are nothing new for the TV biz

Chris D has been reporting on the big changes at Citytv this weekend, which include the firing (his word) of Breakfast Television on-air staff Jimmy Mac and Terri Apostle.

This hits close to home, and not just because Mac is a comedy stalwart in Winnipeg with whom I've worked many times, but also because RRC Creative Communications' students' recent PR and Ad campaign was for BT.

The students' campaign goal was to increase ratings by 20 per cent by generating as much publicity, notoriety, and momentum for BT as possible, which meant that they were tasked with the same challenge as Citytv itself.

Faced with this task, these were the first two questions that first-year students asked me:

1. "Can we recommend that Citytv shorten the show to an hour?"

To this question, I said "no." Easy answer; that question is like Michelangelo saying, "The Sistine Chapel is a pretty big canvas. How about I paint you a 8.5 x ll portrait?" Not gonna happen...

2. "Can we recommend that Citytv change the on-air staff?"

To this question, I also said "no." We train our students to get jobs in the media, with PR agencies, ad agencies, and as communication professionals; how would you like to fight hard for a job, get it, then have your alma mater put together a marketing campaign to replace you? Not gonna happen, part 2...

If this was the students' second suggestion, you can see how a local TV station could come to the same conclusion: it all comes down to audience, branding, money or a combination of "all of the above."

1. The audience

Broadcast media's audience is, by definition, fickle.

The power of television is "visuals" and that's how we judge what we watch. As any TV news personality will tell you, viewers are more vocal about anchors' hairstyles and neckties than they are about the actual news (which may be why some TV anchors, in the wake of high def TV, apparently want plastic surgery to be included in the budget).

And it's really no better in radio, which regularly makes its on-air employees commit "audio plastic surgery" by changing their names, like a friend of mine did when he was told that his last name was "too Jewish for radio." Uh, probably because he is Jewish. But he changed it, because - as much as it seems wrong - if you want a job in radio, that's what you have to do.

Sometimes an audience is represented by a focus group, which decides that it likes some on-air talent more than other on-air talent, especially when asked directly to decide. Management listens to the focus group and - voila - gets rid of the offending parties.

2. Branding

For good or bad, on-air staff are the face and voice of the media outlet, and if they don't (or "no longer") represent the station's direction or brand, they're gone. The good news is that when on-air staff get "rejected" by one media outlet, there's usually another that sees a match; and, yes, Mac and Apostle confirm with Chris D that that they've each had two offers since Friday. Good for them!

3. Money

Older on-air talent costs more than fresh-out-of-school talent; students are willing to be "poor and famous" more than older people with experience. Older on-air staff is usually over the fame part of the job, and just wants to be paid for their experience. As Bill Murray once said in an interview: "Rich and famous? Rich does it for me."

The future of the TV news

Still, this discussion may be largely academic. The greater problem may be that the TV news as we currently know it is an outdated model. Why do we need to wait through the next commercial break for a TV weatherperson to tell us what the forecast will be when we can find out online or on our cell phones "right now?"

At our campaign pitch to Citytv in April, station GM Tom Scott asked the first-year students, "Where do you see TV programming in five years?" Their unanimous answer: online and on demand, which may or may not mean that on-air talent would be serving it up.

If you've even tried to watch an entire local newscast recently, you know how hard it is to actually make it to the end of the entire show without flipping, shutting off the TV, or falling asleep.

As we talked about in class this semester, if TV stations want to stave off this crisis, they'll need to increase viewer participation by linking themselves more closely with new media, and considering alternate media streams and screens to make their product worthwhile again. The engine to drive this, we said, is advertising, PR, buzz, word of mouth, viral media, social media, promotions, and guerrilla marketing.

Without any of this stuff, another on-air host is only another on-air host. And where's the money in that anymore?


  1. You know my thoughts on online TV already.

    I'll admit that these layoffs did not come as a surprise to me. You may remember I said something about "changes in the air" that I sensed when watching BT everyday as research for our campaign.

    Jimmy Mac did not surprise me, we saw Jenna Khan doing more remotes and more of Jimmy in studio, so I thought she would take over for him.

    Terri Apostle was a bit more surprising, as she was supposed to be the "young hip mom" on the show. Maybe it was a personality conflict...

  2. Yep, I agree. And...where's Jon Ljungberg these days?

  3. I don't know. I stopped watching the minute the assignment was over!

  4. Great blog Kenton! Having been in-house at CityTV myself I too am shocked by the loss of the young hip mom as I really liked Terri. As the BT demographic is women 25-54 I don't know WHY they don't have better female hosts... needless to say I too no longer watch the program either. Terri is a great 'cat' who always lands on her feet. I hear that she is at CJOB now (unconfirmed) - good for her. #4 TV station to #1 radio station - a trade UP for sure!


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