The “Talent” Trap


What’s it worth?

The notion of ‘on air talent’ represents an interesting dilema for local and network news, particularly as video heads for the non-linear web.

Up until now, ‘talent’ has been the sacred cow of television news.

There is an inherent belief that the ‘talent’ attracts the audience.

I am not so sure this is true.

But let’s look at the pure economics of this, lets call it ‘the talent trap’.

A relative unknown comes to station A to work as on air talent. (A blog on Medialine today noted that a large percentage of on-air talent had been cheerleaders in High School).

In any event, the ‘talent’ signs a contract, at a reasonable (let’s say) rate of pay.

Because there is a belief that the talent draws and holds the audience, the station now invests many millions in advertising and sheer on-air face time to build the talent as a recognizable entity in the community.

Soon the talent become an entity in the community in his or her own right. They are instantly recognizable – such is the power of television. And there does not have to be any inherent skill or value in their ‘journalistic skills’; the recognition and familiarity factor is enough.

When the talent’s contract comes up for renewal, the station has put the talent into a very powerful position – they can not extract pretty much what they want from the station – they are well known in the community; the station has invested millions to ‘create’ the talent. Now, they cannot afford to lose them. To start again is far too difficult, and to release them to a competitor in the community is to write off the investment. Worse, it is to have made a direct investment with the competitor!

Management has no choice but to acceed to the demands of the talent – no matter how gross they are.

They have to pay whatever the talent demands because they now have to protect themselves from the very creature that they have created!

It’s a kind of blackmail.

And who pays the bill for this blackmail?

It’s the newsroom, and everyone in it. Because the news budget is a fixed number, and that which goes into the anchor’s salary does not go into the cameraman’s salary, or new gear, or the truck or newsgathering.

Is this an intelligent way to run a news organization?

It’s called The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.

But it’s not called The New York Times With Tom Friedman.

Why is that?


25 responses to “The “Talent” Trap

  1. Because at the NYTimes they have no talent šŸ™‚

  2. “And there does not have to be any inherent skill or value in their ā€˜journalistic skillsā€™; the recognition and familiarity factor is enough.”

    Yes and no. There’s a strong case to be made that on-air talent with strong journalistic skills DO get paid accordingly. That’s certainly the case in my market.

    The change, I suspect, is that what management looks for in “talent” will shift as the audience shifts. Looking back in 10 years, we may see”Anchorman” as the turning point.

    Being a pretty talking head has run its course, but there will always be a premium on contributors who connect with and draw a large audience. That’s paying for talent, and it won’t go away.

  3. I was joking, of couse.

  4. There’s talent and then there’s talent. Readers and rock stars. Lots of the former, precious few of the latter, it was ever thus. However, a new day of tech brings new issues. One need only listen in at the news shops where DTV is raising new concerns and discussions related to how readers “look.” This is another triumph of aesthetics or style over substance. While if may indeed be fair to suggest this is nothing new, this time around it’s style on steroids.

    Michael is spot-on when he says we create these monsters. Increased performer “equity” is a natural consequence of our investment and good management.

    Let me disagree with Michael on one point. Talent does make a difference. The 6:30 shows are good exhibits here. Three shows with almost identical story line-ups. The only real differences between the casts are the soft stories and the anchors. (The gang on West 57th would have us believe that local lead-ins are also in the mix) Yet, Charlie wins and Katie loses. All other things being equal people still tend to watch people they like for whatever reason and the reasons have nothing to do with logic.

  5. What an appropriate photo. The guy is, of course, the noted newsman Ron Burgundy from the movie Anchorman. His downfall begins when his co-anchor discovers that Ron will read A NY THING written on the TelePrompTer. Wacky antics ensue.

    I also loved the news anchor in Die Hard who added “… as in Helsinki, Sweden.”

    But my all-time favorite is from Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray tells Andie McDowell “That’s the sign of a good producer: Keep the talent happy.” Chris Elliott leans in and quips “Did he just call himself the Talent?”

    The talent is the sacred cow, but people actually do know the truth, though they might not want to look too hard at it. The movie producers at DreamWorks know the truth, which is how they could make Anchorman funny. We know the truth too, because a parody wouldn’t be funny if it weren’t true.

    People eat Twinkies, but that’s because they don’t read the ingredients.

  6. Lots of comments about “talent” from people who have never worked in a real newsroom and see what the job entails.

    They base ALL of their opinion on movie roles.

    Is it any wonder other ideas they have are not based in reality? Real life is not a movie. It’s make a buck to pay your bills. Do the real job and get paid for it or sit back on the outside making snide, uninformed comments, but no paycheck, about something you know nothing about.

    Just like baseball fans in the stands who talk and make claims of knowledge yet can never seem to do anything well enough to get into the real game in front of them.

    Peanut gallery at it’s best.

    So tell me. What are all those latest 5-Takes kids doing? Did they get new careers or are they sitting at home trying to figure out what to do next to pay their bills?

  7. Dear $
    I can’t speak for the others, but I spent many years working with ‘talent’ who would fly out at the last minute, ask what story we were working on, get handed a script, read the copy and go home. Their paycheck was easily 10 times what the producers were making, but it was the producers (field, network) who were making the pieces. These were ballplayers who phoned it in.

  8. One can read the ingredients on a snack cake and read what is really in there. Some fillings are bitter and some not. The ingredients, by the way, don’t magically become different if you read them from a peanut gallery.

    People used to watch the News at 10, but the network news is going down, VJ or no, because those younger than the GenX crowd have no use for evening news: it’s Xbox or YouTube, baby. The news industry (TV and print) had better come up with a way to get ad revenue out of an Xbox (Google is already very happy with its YouTube purchase).

    I happen to like the Wall Street Journal, The Old Man and the Sea, and Nova. Today’s teens already think those things might as well be slide rules or VHS tapes (if they’ve ever seen either one). I’m not handing over my Old Man, but they aren’t flying off the shelves the way “X-Treme Gamer” magazines are. There will always be curmudgeons like me who will insist that his kids read books. Curmudgeons like me are not teaching in the schools nor attending them.

    Changes in technology change life. My latest minivan has no tape slot, and I never use the CD slot because I want to plug my .mp3 player in somewhere. Think about those national chains of CD stores. Where’d they all go? CD’s are now just a shrinking department in Best Buy. Hook a left and there are the Kitchen Aids.

    To deny these changes is like saying that the Southwest US will never have a majority Latino voting block. A lot of people still do refuse to believe that one, though you can simply read the ingredients; in this case voter registration cards.

    5 Takes was a travel show. The TJĀ“s were not news anchors, which was the subject of this blog post. I think that Mr. Rosenblum clearly made his definition of talent in his post, so I can poke fun if I wish – I call it “Jim’s Twinkie Hypothesis.”

    As far as paying the bills goes, I looked on B-Roll a month or two ago, and the rate for a shooter listed (these are from a survey of paid photographers, right?) for my state would barely pay for groceries and rent for one person… if he ate a lot of Ramen Noodles and didn’t go to the movies much. The TJ’s on 5 takes were able to set aside their normal lives for 9 weeks, get a very expensive tour of South America for free, make a little stipend that would cover all their wages for the 9 weeks and still have fun money. Sign me up!

    5 Takes was never meant to be an “American Idol” to find the next Samantha Brown or Marlin Perkins. The premise was that it was 5 people from different backgrounds exploring a continent. It says this in the show’s opening sequence.

    My hope is that those unhappy with progress in the world would just do what they love, and not expect the world to stop turning. Progress is a steam roller. Some get flattened, and some follow the new pavement.

    Time’s arrow continues on and the Earth keeps spinning. Things will continue to evolve. Expecting otherwise leads to an unfulfilled destiny and a bitter life.


  9. Again Mr. Rosenblum, your experience, and how long ago it was when you actually worked in a newsroom and not teaching a VJ class to a last place station, show how limited and relevant your long ago memories are to be considered.

    Lots of comments from those who don’t know and still don’t because they’ve never actually done the job.

  10. Dear $
    Not to put too fine a point on it, but among the other things I do, I happen to own a 50% share in a local news operation in DC. I think that qualifies as ‘worked in a newsroom’. My family is also in the biz, as my sister is the deputy EP for the Today Show and my brother in law manages MSNBC. So I think I have some small idea of how all this works, actually.

  11. In the spirit of disclosure. My day job involves working with domestic and international media companies at both the local and national levels (broadcast and cable). I am a second-generation broadcaster and have served at station and group posts, the majority of those assignments in major markets in the US. Additionally, for years my name has been found on FCC Form 323 and 323-E.

  12. In other words, neither one of you makes news judgement calls, assigns story coverage or actually goes out and shoots, writes, edits or conduct news interviews.

    You sit in an office and others do the real job.


    Once again you show you don’t know what it takes to get the job done.

    Mr. Rosenblum wants to claim being a field producer more than forty years ago somehow gives him knowledge of how to cover news. If he really knew how to do the job he’d still be doing it instead of running a school. And the stations that are hiring him are in the ratings cellar.

    Just like the wife of a lawyer or TV station GM who thinks they KNOW TV, Mr. Rosenblum wants to parade his sister around as if it’s some form of validation of his own knowledge and experience.

    She’s the one with the job and experience. Not you.

  13. Really Mr. $
    Had I stayed at CBS (and its 18 years, not 40), I think my income would be about 10 percent of what it is now, if not less. And by the way, owning a station involves news decision that bear a lot more weight than running an assignment desk or being a producer, trust me. There is a whole lot more on the line.

    I would also take issue with the idea that the stations that hire me are ‘in the cellar’. I spent 5 years with The BBC, and I don’t exactly see them as ‘ the cellar’, do you?

  14. Dear $ (with thanks to Michael for the use of the hall)

    You have yet to make a cogent argument on this subject matter. Moreover, you seem preoccupied with job descriptions being the single and, it appears, sole determinate as to whether others are even qualified to hold an opinion.

    Ok, I’m a suit. Guilty as charged. However, because I do not make my daily bread at a morning editorial meeting or in the field or posting in the shop does not lead to your conclusion that “others do the real job.” Yours is not an intellectually honest argument. It pretends only those involved in a part of the process are materially involved in the process itself. Truth be told without the suits there would be no news, no matter how good or bad. Yeah, life ain’t fair and too often sucks but then there’s always film school.

    What a shame you were not around in the last century when (as Michael will attest) we journos were involved in the great debate of the nature of the news organization. What was our business? Were we in the business of “news gathering” or “news disseminating.” For those playing along at home (or at school) it was a the false argument by the green shade gang that proffered the notion we could read a story and enjoy the same impact, the same research driven “news value” or “viewer perception” finding and save the silly expense of actually leaving the shop or investing resources to “gather” the news. I began this para with the word “shame” because my thought is should you, dear $, have been around for that brutal and engaging discourse your head would have likely exploded.

  15. As your responses above confirm, neither one of you has ever done the job. Just lots of excuses for the need to have “suits” in any business.

    It’s the same as if you ran a car company but have no idea how to build an engine.

    Failure from the top.

  16. Yes
    Well to carry the above analogy to its logical conclusion, I once worked next to you on the shop floor. Then I moved up to running the company, but I still know how to put an engine together. What is the problem with that? Isn’t that who you want running the company?

  17. You never worked next to me. You may have watched what I was doing, like any spectator to an event. That doesn’t mean you know how to do the job.

    You make comments and observations about jobs which you can and never have done.

    When were you an anchor? When did you ever shoot and edit more than a handful of stories which aired for broadcast? How long ago? When have you ever directed people for ongoing local news coverage?

    You are all talk with no experience to back it up.

    If someone handed you a camera today and you had to go out and shoot, write and edit a story you would embarrass yourself. It’s why you prefer others do it for you. Heaven help the students if they saw what you can, or rather can’t, actually do.

    By the way, what has happened to the latest 5-Takes crew of VJs? Where are they now?

    I have a good idea what that answer would be and it’s exactly why you won’t answer that question.

  18. I still shoot and edit, but it doesn’t keep me from doing lots of other things. As for 5Takes, they were participants in a ‘reality’ show. They were not employed to gather news. They were selected from thousands of applicants in auditions to spend 8 weeks traveling the world with video cameras – then they went back to their jobs as airline stewardess or mother of 8 kids or whatever. Didn’t you watch the show?

  19. In other words, all those 5-takes VJs are no longer doing VJ.

    What a surprise.


  20. No I didn’t watch the show. Just like the majority of the viewing audience available didn’t watch the show. It was a ratings loser beaten by so many other shows on at the same time.

    Here’s a better question. What shows did 5-takes beat on any channel anywhere?

    That’s a very short list if one exists at all.

  21. Yes!!
    And the people who were on Survivor are NO LONGER ON THE ISLAND!!!!

  22. Didn’t see the show??? Didn’t see the show??? Wait a minute, I thought you said you worked in a News Room!! Must be my mistake. You said you were some kind of news practitioner./. that you did it on a daily basis. Now you are telling me that you are ‘reporting’ on something you never saw???

    Ha, I was right.
    Fox news it it!

  23. Nope, I didn’t waste my time tuning in to 5-Takes very week. I watched a couple of segments one night by accident and that was the total extent of my viewership.

    I sure do work in a newsroom and I get paid a good salary to do it.

    All those folks on the Survivor shows make really good money too. It just depends on when they get voted off as to how much. Want to take a guess at what the lowest paid member of those shows makes? The first person voted off makes twenty grand for their six weeks effort.

    How much did your VJ’s make? HA!

    And what does Survivor have to do with anything? Those people weren’t the ones shooting and editing the show. They were contestants. The folks behind the scene doing the work of shooting and editing make top dollar. They are the ones you should compare pay checks to but that would make your VJ’s look even more foolish.

    Now those VJ’s are done. All that work and no one watched. There was no future. No revolution. No new career with a large audience desperate to see their work. They are home doing what is best for them. Looking for another job that actually helps them pay their bills and have a life. They didn’t find it with VJ work.

    Of course maybe you could hire them as teachers in your school(s)! I’m sure they could enlighten all those bright, eager minds about what VJ work does and doesn’t do.

  24. Oh, the VJs who shot 5Takes.
    Well, lemme see.
    A few still work for me.
    One is working on the new Borat sequel in LA.
    One is working on The Daily Show.
    One is shooting a commercial for Ford this week.
    One is shooting a series for Discovery.
    The rest, I am not sure.
    Yeah… what a bunch of losers.
    They’d be much better off working a 9-5 somewhere. I’ll tell em when I see em.

  25. Nice list which proves quite a few haven’t found that pot of VJ gold you promised would be out there.

    Working for you? That doesn’t always mean getting a living wage does it, so I guess I’ll have to agree there are still a few losers, as you yourself decided to call them, among that crowd.

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