Local TV stations ax well-paid anchors as viewers decline, revenue shrivels

Veteran Denver TV anchorman Ernie Bjorkman will get the chance to move into his next career as a veterinary assistant a few years sooner than planned after getting a pink slip a few weeks after signing a quarter-million-dollar contract in October. The New York Times wistfully reported Sunday the decline of big-money local anchors as the economy socks an industry already hit with big drops in viewers.

Bjorkman, 57, signs off for the last time on Dec. 31 after 36 years in the business, his departure the result of cost-tightening following the merger of news operations at his station, CW affiliate KWGN-TV, with KDVR-TV, Denver’s Fox affiliate.

The merger hit the news crew at Bjorkman’s Channel 2 disproportionately, with 30 staffers shown the door when production operations consolidated at Channel 31’s downtown headquarters, but the longtime anchorman’s fate is emblematic of the “dying breed,” according to the Times. “When station managers are forced to make cuts, hefty anchor salaries are a tempting target,” reporter Brian Stelter writes, listing a bevy of anchors “let go,” “laid off” and “dismissed” in Chicago, Boston, Houston and Los Angeles.

“There is certainly an erosion of longtime anchors happening at many stations across the country,” says a veteran news consultant who pioneered the “Eyewitness News” format decades ago, “for a very simple reason: economics.”

The Television Bureau of Advertising forecasts a 7-percent drop in local television advertising revenue this year — fueled by losses in television’s largest category of advertisers, car makers and auto dealers — with an equally large decrease next year.

It’s a slide unlikely to slow down as Americans shed old ways of getting news and put less stock in traditional authorities like the local anchorman. In an Internet-driven news environment, when frequently anonymous bloggers garner audiences that rival local newscasts, the expensive value of an anchor can look wobbly when there’s less money to throw around.

Local TV, although it lacks the glamour of the network nightly news or the prestige of print newspapers, remains the most popular single source of news in the United States. Slightly more than half of the population watches local news regularly, according to the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, while only 34 percent read a newspaper each day and 29 percent watch a network evening newscast.

But the ratings for the broadcasts have gradually eroded over the years. The typical late newscast now reaches 12 percent of viewers watching TV in a given market, down from 21 percent 10 years ago.

Local news still accounts for nearly half the revenue at many stations, but as that revenue shrinks, so do the resources available to once-mighty news departments. It’s similar to the thousands of layoffs that have stricken the beleaguered newspaper industry, The Times reports, as stations “have automated many of their technical operations and spread their staffs ever more thinly.”

“I don’t think we’re going to see the anchor people grow old with the audience anymore,” said Bjorkman, who has at least grown middle-aged with his.

Reading the writing on the wall — or the news bites on the teleprompter — Bjorkman began training as a veterinary technician two years ago to pursue a dream of working with animals. He often surprised customers while performing his internships at animal hospitals across the metro area — “They think I’m doing an undercover story,” he told Westword’s Michael Roberts — but completed his coursework before losing his job and plans to move into his new job soon after graduating in December. “I’m ready to reinvent myself,” he told The Times.

“I need to figure out what to do with my hundred suits and three-hundred ties,” Bjorkman told Westword. “Maybe I’ll have a yard sale in the parking lot.”

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Ernest Luning

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