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TV Takes a Page Out of Newspaper Hardships

NBC's plan to realign underlines the media's painful choices in dealing with difficult Internet competition.

October 20, 2006|Matea Gold and Thomas S. Mulligan | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — NBC Universal's plan to reorganize its news operations as part of a companywide streamlining serves as a vivid indication that the technological forces squeezing newspapers have spread to TV.

By consolidating units of its cable and broadcast news divisions and paring its staff, NBC hopes to free resources to devote to serving viewers who have embraced the Internet as a source of information.

"All the trends indicate that we need to realign," said NBC News President Steve Capus.

The widespread migration of news consumers to the Web has triggered painful adjustments in the industry in recent years, particularly on the print side, where newspapers coping with declining circulations and stagnant advertising revenue have cut staff and newsprint.

Thursday brought another reminder of those challenges as Tribune Co. -- parent of the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, KTLA-TV Channel 5 and other newspapers and TV stations nationwide -- reported a larger-than-expected decline in third-quarter advertising revenue. New York Times Co. on Thursday also reported lower quarterly revenue and profit.

Although broadcast television networks have scaled back their news operations in recent years, particularly in foreign bureaus, they have largely avoided the kind of extensive layoffs that have plagued their print brethren. In the meantime, network news divisions have moved aggressively to package their content for online and mobile viewing, hoping to hold on to its audience with Net casts, podcasts and blogs.

"Everybody is going in the same direction, which is to cut people on the traditional broadcast front and to try to expand on the digital front," said Richard Wald, a former NBC News president and ABC News vice president who teaches at Columbia University. "How well they do it is the real question."

NBC executives said they hoped that honing their news-gathering operations would help ward off the dour economic climate that had settled over the newspaper industry. Their aim: to free resources for new digital products and eventually expand their reach.

"This means an investment in news coverage," Capus said. "All of the models are under attack, whether here or the Tribune Co. or AOL or Disney. Everyone is seeing it for what it is and everyone is responding. We're doing it on our terms, and while we're in a leadership position."

As the top-rated broadcast news division, NBC News continues to generate a healthy profit for the company. But it is unclear whether the network's restructuring will help it solve endemic problems such as the steady drop in viewers for the evening news over the last several decades.

Officials said the changes were largely aimed at reducing duplication, such as the separate units that book guests and handle design graphics at NBC News and its sister cable channels, MSNBC and CNBC.

The network plans to consolidate its broadcast and cable operations in cities such as Los Angeles, where a regional bureau would house network and local staff. MSNBC's offices in Secaucus, N.J., would be shuttered and its staff transferred to NBC's Rockefeller Center headquarters, where cable shows such as "Countdown With Keith Olbermann" would be produced. Other MSNBC personnel would be transferred to the CNBC offices in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

Capus declined to say how many jobs would be lost in the process but said he hoped most of the cuts could be accomplished through attrition and buyouts.

NBC anchor Brian Williams said the restructuring reflected "a new electronic reality" and would not change the news division's operations.

"If, at any time, the actions taken by my company today end up compromising our mission to gather and report the news, I will make my feelings known loudly and promptly," he wrote on his blog, "The Daily Nightly."

But some television news veterans viewed NBC's cutbacks with apprehension.

"It always breaks my heart, because as much as they will make it sound as though the product is going to be as good as it ever was -- no, it won't," said former ABC anchor Ted Koppel, who produces news and documentaries for the Discovery Channel.

In particular, Koppel said he was afraid the reductions in news personnel would accelerate the decline in foreign news coverage, the most costly kind of reporting.

"It worries me that in their effort to be economically competitive, they're giving up this responsibility," he said.

Capus rejected that notion, noting that NBC News had recently opened bureaus in Beijing, Beirut and Bangkok.

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