When word got out this week that a highly-rated local TV station, owned by a global public corporation, was letting go three popular, respected on-air anchors and reporters amid other cuts, we started getting questions. Don’t they understand how much the audiences likes and trusts these guys? Don’t they get that they will lose viewers in the long term? Aren’t they concerned this will hurt their product?
I believe local management does understand that and is concerned about it. We know them and work with them. This is a station that takes its community role seriously and this has to hit hard. But, ultimately, in today’s media world, it isn’t their call. As one former general manager once told me about most local stations, “They’re an ATM for headquarters.” It used to be all about gaining ratings points and selling commercials. If ratings and sales were good, headquarters would leave you alone. Today, as with every public company, it’s about making a corporate spreadsheet look a certain way. Yes, management by Excel document dictates who you see on TV.
It reminds me of the famous scene in the movie “The Fugitive.” The escaped prisoner, played by Harrison Ford tells the Deputy Marshal, played by Tommy Lee Jones that “I didn’t kill my wife.” Jones, whose only job was to find him, responds, “I don’t care.”
In the powerful accounting and finance departments of big public companies, when it comes to things like customer loyalty, brand building and long-term reputation, they don’t care. They really only care about three things – hitting their numbers, hitting their numbers and hitting their numbers. It’s all about this quarter’s targets and meeting number expectations for this year. The cruel reality is that while journalists lose their jobs, headquarters bean counters will earn bonuses for making their marks.
This is just how it works with Wall Street. Several years ago, we did enormously successful work for a New York-based public company. While providing highly-specialized niche services, we received accolades from within the company and won awards within our industry. We accomplished this at a tiny fraction of the cost of the global firms the company used otherwise. But when corporate ordered cuts, our track record and relationships didn’t matter, nor did our efficiency. Someone took a look at a spreadsheet and cut our budget completely, along with some of the big firms’ work and multiple in-house, full-time positions. Not only was there a hole in our business, the company’s corporate communications was decimated and the company’s reputation suffered. But, that’s just not a priority in the modern corporate world.
We have seen the hard evidence from newspapers and radio that cutting aspects of the product that customers notice is not a pathway to growth or increased relevance in a fast-changing media landscape. TV follows this path at its own risk. They will hit their numbers now, but risk their long-term viability. The number crunchers just don’t care.