Clouds gather over TV landscape
Viewers of local news on Albany channels 6, 10 or 13 have noticed some familiar faces missing in action. The public's shift to the Internet for information, combined with the deep recession, has not spared the highly profitable TV business.
Lydia Kulbida, co-anchor of NewsChannel 13's 6 and 11 p.m. shows for the past nine years, was let go. She was the best-known of the 17 staffers dismissed Jan. 1 by WNYT.
Benita Zahn, a 30-year veteran, is now the on-air partner of Jim Kambrich, a 20-year employee, on the early-evening news; he is now the lone anchor at 11. Kelly Lynch, the 11 a.m. news anchor, also was laid off, as was reporter John Allen. The WNYT Berkshire Bureau, housed in the Clock Tower building since 2001, is now staffed only on occasion.
The station is part of the family-owned Hubbard Broadcasting Corp., based in St. Paul, Minn.
At WRGB, Channel 6, former Berkshire Bureau chief Mary Beth Wenger was dropped after 27 years of service, along with two other employees.
The CBS affiliate, owned by Freedom Communications of Irvine, Calif., also closed its bureau in Pittsfield and removed its some of its equipment from the Berkshire Eagle's newsroom, ending a six-year media partnership.
But general manager Robert Furlong said Channel 6 maintains a media partnership with The Eagle. He acknowledged that 25 percent of the total staff has been reduced in the past several years, almost entirely through attrition, as a result of automation and other new technology.
Explaining the decision to pull up stakes in the Berkshires, Furlong maintained that county news generated through the Internet provides sufficient coverage except for major breaking stories.
He declined to elaborate on Wenger's departure, saying "we just decided not to renew her contract because we were over budget." He said he does not anticipate more staff cuts "I believe we're where we need to be."
Meanwhile, ABC affiliate WTEN, Channel 10, is now operating under a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing by its debt-burdened owner, New York-based Young Broadcasting, Inc.
The Channel 13 layoffs represent a 15 percent cut from a former staff of 120. Kulbida, who came to channel 13 from the NBC affiliate in Springfield, WWLP Channel 22, also had five years of previous experience at WBFO, the public radio station in Buffalo, N.Y. She has been a regular panelist on "The Media Project," a weekly half-hour of news and commentary on WAMC Northeast Public Radio hosted by the station's president and CEO, Alan Chartock and is now pursuing a master's in education at Russell Sage's graduate school in Troy, N.Y.
"I consider Lydia to be the best of the best," Chartock said. "I would give my eye-teeth to get her for WAMC."
Why would Channel 13 dismiss a highly-respected, well-liked anchor who, we've learned, was making just over $100,000 a year?
Ed Dague, Channel 13's lead anchor and managing editor from 1984 to 2003, has offered some speculation on his media blog hosted by the Times Union Web site in Albany.
The Hubbard family is well-known for anti-union policies and its skepticism about global warming; many of Channel 13's employees are represented by the powerful NABET union, and Kulbida was among the union activists.
Besides, Dague wrote, "Kulbida had resisted some of management's attempts to insert Hubbard family opinions into news content.
"My belief is that her salary didn't make her a target for the cutback but her activism and attitude did," Dague wrote. "There is an inconsistency at the center of journalism in that every employer wants every journalist to ignore the employer.
"Smart, ethical, suspicious and curious people are the best kind of reporters and the worst kind of employees. Weak management gets rid of those people while assured and strong management seeks them out."
In a phone interview, WNYT general manager Steve Baboulis categorically denied that union activities or ownership interference in news content had anything to do with the station's decision not to renew Kulbida's contract.
"Absolutely untrue," he declared.
He asserted that Channel 13 is the last Albany-area channel to resort to major layoffs. "We tried to keep our staff as it was and we had a cushion since we're the number-one station, but the economic realities finally hit us full-bore," he said.
Acknowledging that at least 500 e-mails have been received from viewers since Kulbida's departure from the top-rated 6 and 11 p. m. newscasts, he insisted that she was let go as part of a station budget cutback exceeding $1 million.
"Of course, we always make value judgments as to what we're paying someone for their services," he said. "But the cold, hard reality of head-count requires decisions to be made in the simplest way possible.
"I had to weigh the risk of having Lydia no longer with us, but I felt with the strength we have elsewhere in the organization we could withstand it."
Describing himself as the "ultimate decider of what goes on the air here, beyond the Hubbard family," Baboulis insisted that the station owners have never tried to influence news content. He did acknowledge that the Hubbards asked all their stations to produce specials on the global warming debate and he maintained that the Channel 13 program represented all sides of the issue.
WNYT reporter Bill Lambdin, the NABET union president for the local that represents 150 employees at WNYT, WRGB and public broadcaster WMHT, does not dispute management's case.
"The company had the right to do what it chose to do," he told me. "It has eliminated one anchor position, and didn't replace Lydia with a newly hired anchor." With nine years at the station, he pointed out, she was the junior member of the news-anchor group. Based on the seniority-based formula for severance pay, "she was the least-expensive anchor to drop," he said.
"The decision was made not out of animus but because of financial considerations. The company followed the letter of the union contract."
In Lambdin's view, the "combination of advertising that really cratered and the overall economy going south in a big way" caused the NewsChannel 13 layoffs.
True enough; local TV stations no longer are cash bovines and cannot count on once-typical 30- or 40 percent profit margins. As the TV landscape clouds over, inevitably it's the viewers who pay the price.
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