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June 27, 2016

The Ron Burgundy Effect: Fact, Fiction, or None of the Above?

“There was a time, a time before cable, when the local anchorman reigned supreme…”
-The opening line to ‘Anchorman’

If Ron Burgundy was real, he and his news team would certainly have fought it out with Bill Bonds. Bonds was Detroit’s most popular anchor in the 1970s and 80s. As a native Michigander, I’m a little biased, but in an anchor showdown Bill Bonds would have kicked Ron Burgundy’s ass. Bonds was amazingly talented. He could do a show with no teleprompter, no script, no interruptions, and no breaks. He also drank too much, ridiculed co-workers, and used his anchor chair to go after anyone he disagreed with – once even challenging the Mayor of Detroit to a fistfight. But Detroit loved Bill Bonds and people couldn’t stop watching him.

Bonds died in 2014. There won’t be another Bill Bonds on TV and not just because he was a one-of-a-kind personality. Local stations are moving away from creating a “big anchor.” The simple reason – it is the latest cost cutting measure at a time when local television stations are trying to maintain the quality of their programs even as their audience becomes more fragmented.

Television talent agent Mort Meisner worked with Bill Bonds at two different stations (in the interest of full disclosure – Mort also hired me when I was a young TV writer starting my career). Now helping dozens of anchors and reporters negotiate contracts at stations across America, Meisner recently told me: “What’s changed is that no one is going to invest to build up anyone like a Bill Bonds anymore. The stations don’t want to tie up so much money in an individual so that you can’t do anything else. Instead, they are promoting what they are – the type of news that they are doing – instead of it all being tied up in one person. That allows them to do other things.”

Like Meisner, Rick Gevers has been on both sides of negotiations for “talent”, serving as a News Director in Toledo, Ohio and Grand Rapids, Michigan before becoming an agent. He said he’s seen stations ask anchors to give up as much as a third of their salary. These cuts coming as stations realize that the new revenue stream from digital hasn’t made up for the declining audiences for broadcast.

“On air broadcast is only one part of what a TV station is about,” Gevers said. “The role of the anchorman is being diminished a bit as stations change. They no longer work just to do the 4pm, 5pm, 6pm, and 11pm, but they’re becoming 24-hour content providers as people increasingly get their news from phones, websites, and social media.”

One former TV executive recently told me that today’s big anchors remind viewers of Ron Burgundy. Those kind of anchors don’t test very well anymore. We’ve seen a few stories about anchors losing their jobs in major markets. There will be more. Could anchors be rotated in and out? Will stations start changing the news reader much the way they change logos and sets?

It might not be that dire. Meisner says “People are still getting paid obscenely, but not obnoxiously.” He added, “People are saying ‘we are going to pay people well, but we’re not going to build anymore 10,000-pound gorillas.’ There will always be demand for high quality talent, but the monster salaries are going to be few and far between.”

Even with these changes, local news will continue to be one of the places people get their headlines. If you pitch stories to local news, don’t give up. The stories about anchors leaving or getting pay cuts may lead you to think the local news is dead. It’s not.

Analysis pieces mourning the demise of the local news go all the way back to the time when Ron Burgundy was just a gleam in Will Ferrell’s eye and Ted Baxter was America’s favorite imaginary anchorman. Furthermore, star anchors might be rarer, but they are not disappearing altogether. Perhaps what is over is the time when one station, powered by a high wattage anchor like Bill Bonds or ratings-grabbing lead-in (like Oprah in the afternoons or LA Law and Dallas in primetime), could dominate a market for decades.

In many markets, the anchor plays a vital role, providing the soundtrack to a community’s darkest moments and finest hours. Gevers said stations will continue to want that person who is a presence in the community: “The anchorman’s importance has diminished a bit, but ask someone their thoughts about a station, they’re still most likely to talk about their favorite news anchor.”

Meisner added: “The local news anchor is still going to be the person that people love to love. There is still a desire to have someone who can read the news, reassure you that the sky isn’t falling, and kiss the day goodbye at the end of the show.”

Photo courtesy: Gareth Milner (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

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