KTTV Channel 11's entire newsroom staff of writers, directors and producers agreed to accept the Fox-owned station's offer to buy out their contracts, foreshadowing a move to a more tabloid news style and leaving all remaining union employees and all future hires without a seniority clause in their union contract, station employees said Thursday.
"A contract without a seniority clause is like having no union contract at all," said Dick Smith, president of Local 53 of the National Assn. of Broadcast Employees & Technicians. "It's going to be a three-ring circus over there with people coming and going as they (station managers) see fit."
The station offered to buy out the contract of the 11 news employees three weeks ago. Under the agreement, KTTV will pay the employees--whose seniority, salaries and positions were protected in NABET's contract with the station--26 weeks of pay at their regular rate plus four weeks for every year of service at the station. KTTV will also pay their medical benefits for one year.
"I'll be 62 years old in October," said Frank Elmquist, a KTTV producer for the past 12 years. "When someone my age is kicked out on the street, he can't find another job in this business. They've basically said to me, 'Your career in journalism is through.' "
The 11 employees' last day on the job will be next Friday. KTTV has already begun hiring new people to replace them, Elmquist said.
KTTV referred all inquiries on the matter to Hugo Rossitter, vice president of labor relations for Fox Television Stations Inc., but his assistant said they had "no comment." KTTV General Manager Greg Nathanson was not immediately available for comment.
Smith said that the station offered this "unprecedented" arrangement, which he estimated would cost the station more than $1 million, in order to undermine the union contract signed last year. That contract protected the seniority rights of all union employees hired before June 1, 1988, meaning writers, producers and directors could not have their pay cut even if they are reassigned to less prestigious jobs.
People hired for NABET-covered positions after June 1, 1988, do not have any of these protections, Smith said.
The 11 protected staffers could have refused the buyout and stayed on at the station at their current guaranteed salaries. But Smith said that the station had threatened that new people would be hired to do their old jobs anyway and the 11 would have been reduced to doing menial tasks such as ripping wire copy and sweeping floors if they turned down the offer. Smith said that none of the journalists wanted to face "that kind of humiliation."
Both Smith and Elmquist also said that KTTV is changing its direction in terms of news, moving toward a tabloid and entertainment-styled newscast akin to Fox's "A Current Affair." The station has a new managing editor, Wendy MacNeil, whom a source in the newsroom said has been mandated to push the station's 10 p.m. daily newscast in that direction.
As an example of this new emphasis on soft news, one newsroom employee pointed out that Channel 11 led two of its 10 p.m. newscasts last week with Zsa Zsa Gabor's troubles with the Beverly Hills police, and then led with the "Batman" premiere in Westwood last Monday night.