The battle of the nightly news anchors: 'star wars' comes to local TV
It's 6 p.m. At Boston's top three TV stations, the Great Ratings War is about to break out again.Skip to next paragraph
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All eyes - as they have been since September - are on Channel 7, WNEV-TV. Right after an ad for Magic Pan Restaurants, amid the blare of trumpets, the station's new million-dollar ''Dream Team'' comes into focus: Tom Ellis ($600, 000+ per year) and co-anchor Robin Young ($400,000+).
Robin Young, from curled coiffure to high heels, could easily have stepped straight from the pages of Vogue magazine. Tom Ellis is what his fans call ''ruggedly handsome,'' with the chiselled jaw of a real-life Dick Tracy.
Armed with these two superstars, plus $3.5 million for special equipment and a new, colorful newsroom, Channel 7 is trying to blast its way to No. 1 in what has become the biggest moneymaker for TV stations in America, their own local news programs.
What's happening here has been repeated from coast to coast. Boston - the nation's sixth largest television market - is just the latest, and certainly one of the flashiest, examples.
''News wars are being waged in almost every television market in the country, to some degree, because whether you're in the 10th largest market or the 110th, news is profitable,'' says Thomas Bohn, dean of Ithaca College's School of Communications in New York.
A 30-second commercial on the 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. news on a network-affiliate in Los Angeles, for example, costs between $1,000 and $2,000, depending on the station. The 11 p.m. report is much pricier, falling in the $2,200 to $3,200 range.
Although news is expensive to produce, the local stations don't have to split the money they make with the network.
It's not uncommon for a top-rated station to earn as much as half its profits from advertising sold on local news. Even with its long-standing position at the bottom of the heap, Channel 7, the CBS affiliate in Boston, pockets a third of its profits from this one source.
Dr. Bohn, a sort of battlefield historian of TV news wars, says it's only been over the last 5 to 10 years that local stations have fully recognized the profit potential in news.
As a result, the scramble for ratings is becoming more intense than ever, with local news programs being promoted with the bluster and bucks once reserved for prime-time entertainment.
Says Bohn, ''Once it was recognized how much money was being made in local news, the anchors began to demand a share of that - and they've gotten it.''
This certainly seems to have happened in Boston, where an intense bidding competition over a few popular newscasters marked the first open hostilities of the current nightly news war.
In early June, Channel 7 succeeded in pulling Ellis away from top-rated Channel 5 - where the tall Texan had been reading the news for four years. But in hiring Ellis, Channel 7 blew the roof off Boston's TV news salary scale.
''What they've [Channel 7] basically done,'' says Channel 4 general manager Sy Yanoff, ''is taken the Boston market and started to pay New York and Los Angeles prices.''
Ellis was in the midst of negotiating a new contract with Channel 5 when he decided to switch sides. At the time, he already was the highest paid anchor in town - earning a comfortable $165,000 a year.
But quadrupling Ellis's income was only the beginning. During the summer-long ''star wars,'' Channel 7's generals:
* Tried to lure away Channel 5's other top-rated anchor, Natalie Jacobson. This forced Channel 5 to quadruple her $100,000 salary and that of her co-anchor husband, Chet Curtis.
* Completed their new ''Dream Team'' by hiring Robin Young. The former NBC News correspondent will make an estimated $2 million over five years.
* Made substantial, though not stratospheric, offers to several other reporters at Channels 4 and 5. Political reporter Joe Day left his $52,000 job at Channel 5 to sign a Channel 7 contract that pays him $97,000 the first year and $127,000 by the fifth.