TV broadcasters feeling the pinch

A struggling economy and a relentless assault from rival electronic media sources have conspired to make this the most challenging of times for Southern Oregon's television broadcasters.

Television tends to be a glass half-full industry, even when ratings slip. So in the face of unparalleled advertising revenue losses, local commercial station executives say they are coping with the recession.

"I think everyone is fairly healthy, considering the times we're in," says Renard Maiuri, vice president and general manager of ABC affiliate KDRV. "Television has been impacted as much as any business related to home building or the automobile industry, but I think this market is holding up relatively well."

Even so, there's no getting around the drop in advertising dollars.

"I think it's safe to say revenue is down double-digits for everyone," Maiuri admits. "Regardless of the business, everyone has had to tighten their belts."

That's meant creative short-cuts, fewer positions, even reduced hours and pay in some cases.

"I can't speak for everyone," Maiuri says. "But we looked to eliminate any expense that we could live without or weren't contractually obligated to fulfill. Keeping expenses down significantly has made up a healthy portion of the revenue shortfall."

KDRV is one of three Chambers Communications stations (along with KEZI in Eugene and KOHD in Bend) sharing a business office as well as the scheduling of programs and commercials from a central office in Eugene.

Television has battled eroding audiences for decades as cable and satellite providers add more and more channels. But as long as local programmers could counter with network hits, syndicated winners or unique local productions, they still attracted viewers and advertising dollars. More recently, Web channels have provided alternate delivery of network shows and kicked up a competitive dust of content via the likes of YouTube

"Budgets are down across the board," says Bill Maentz, president of The Maentz Agency Inc., whose own advertising agency was hit hard when Charter Communications filed for bankruptcy. You're looking at retail clients — the furniture stores, car dealers — some of whose business is off 40 percent and they've cut back. We do business in Oregon, Washington and Idaho and I haven't seen any different effects in other areas, including the Portland metro market; it's tough everywhere."

Medford's four major network affiliates have varying degrees of exposure to the recession, based largely on their corporate owner's status.

Perhaps CBS affiliate KTVL has absorbed the hardest hit.

Freedom Communications, KTVL's parent company based in, Irvine, Calif., announced across-the-board, 5 percent pay cuts for employees at all levels of the company, reductions that took effect Monday.

The company, which operates eight television stations across the country, instituted a furlough program during the second quarter, in which employees took off five unpaid days. According to Freedom's Web site, the pay reduction "was the best way to reduce both uncertainty on the part of company employees and the impact on operations caused by furloughs."

The flip side to being part of a larger media group, says Kingsley Kelley, vice president and general manager at KTVL, is the breadth of resources available for his staff.

"We might have software on a Web site we wouldn't get as a small, independent station," Kelley said. "Freedom is weathering the storm like every other media company that has positioned themselves for success."

At the other end of the spectrum from Freedom Communications, is California-Oregon Broadcasting Inc., whose owner lives in the Rogue Valley. Corporate headquarters are in the same downtown Medford building as NBC affiliate KOBI.

"There is no question that having the local ownership of Patsy Smullin, and her participation in managing through this recession, has been and is a huge asset," says Bob Wise, KOBI's vice president and general manager. "These are very unique times for all of us, and having the owner available to our staff for any questions or concerns has helped immensely. It also helps to have no corporate debt and a very small corporate staff."

California-Oregon Broadcasting has lost a handful of employees during the recession, Wise says. "But we have also found ways to keep several staff members employed through creative thinking."

Recessions are nothing new for Cary Jones, vice president and general manager of FOX affiliate KMVU, who also has worked for stations in Portland and Iowa.

"We're pretty pragmatic in the way we've budgeted for this," Jones says. "We've done a number of things, from delaying initiatives to budgetary items. This is my third or fourth recession.So far in this one we have not had to eliminate any jobs."

KMVU's staff has shrunk since he arrived in 2004. A news story at the time said he would oversee a staff of about two dozen; that has since dropped to about 20 employees.

Even when the recession comes to an end, there is no guarantee viewership for local stations won't continue to erode. In an industry where viewer numbers traditionally have been translated into advertising rates, that means continued uncertainty.

"There are so many platforms where people can get TV shows and news and information, too," Kelley says. "There is such a diversity of sources, even for local information. The key challenge for any local entity then is to operate and position themselves as one of those sources."

But until auto, recreational vehicle dealers, appliance and other retailers start pounding the airwaves, stations will be treading financial water.

"The January-February period was the first time in 19 years of doing this that I actually saw the cost of television time coming down," Maentz says. "The audience is spread over a broader base of choices, which depletes the number of anyone watching the show."

Still, television executives remain an optimistic bunch.

"I remember when the FOX station signed on," Kelley says. "Somebody said now we have four TV stations in a 212-station market. The thought was there wasn't enough revenue sufficient to support four stations, but somehow it works out."

Reach Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or

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