AJR  Features
From AJR,   July/August 2000

Rechanneling Their Energy   

As the once-mighty TV consultants fall from favor with their clients, they're finding new opportunities overseas and in the world of new media.

By Carol Guensburg
Carol Guensburg (carol.guensburg@verizon.net) is senior editor for the Journalism Center on Children & Families, a University of Maryland professional program - and a nonprofit. It receives primary support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Guensburg spent 14 years as an editor and reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after working for three other papers.     

I T DIDN'T TAKE A FANCY Doppler 5000 radar system to detect the turbulence now roiling the TV news consulting business. The signs began building in frequency and intensity in the late 1990s, like whitecaps preceding a storm.
"The signal, from my own personal experience, was that some long-term clients were trying to shorten service from four visits a year to two," consultant Al Primo recalls. "Instead of a $5,000 monthly stipend, they were talking about $2,000."
The 64-year-old former ABC News executive, who made his name as the "father of Eyewitness News," prides himself on looking ahead. So, while Primo continues to advise a few stations, last summer he plunged into cybernews, launching an Internet-only TV network called Medium4.com.
Primo's was only one sign of the sea change. Consultants for McHugh & Hoffman Inc., one of the original agencies in the TV consulting business, regrouped to put more emphasis on new-media clients after being released last fall by parent Market Strategies. Consultant Don Fitzpatrick is concentrating on his daily industry newsletter, Shoptalk, after closing a San Francisco talent agency he ran for 18 years.
"The future of consulting in local television? I think it's on shaky terms," Fitzpatrick says.
"The handwriting is on the wall.... The consulting business is basically over," Primo declares in an impassioned moment.
While such dark forecasts aren't universally accepted, this much is clear: After nearly 30 years of researching viewer attitudes and advising stations on everything from hiring to helicopters to an anchor's hair color or a newscast's running order, change has hit the change agents, big time.
Fundamental shifts in media ownership, and in how news is gathered, packaged and disseminated, are limiting some consulting options and creating others for the handful of prominent agencies and countless individuals counseling TV stations today.
As corporations buy up stations and pile up debt, budget shearing becomes more urgent. "When they start looking at expenses, they want to cut consultants, advertising and marketing, as opposed to programming, where you have long-term contracts," explains Dow Smith, a former news director who teaches at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
Early this year, two major media groups--Gannett Broadcasting, with 21 stations, and Hearst-Argyle Television Inc., with 26--announced they would replace most outside consultants with in-house staff. In March, CBS made a similar move, tapping its former Philadelphia news director for a corporate post in which he leads "news initiatives" for the network's 16 owned-and-operated stations. Hearst-Argyle's decision wasn't "anti-consultant," says Fred Young, vice president of news. "It was driven by the feeling that our own people will perhaps be able to devote more time to our stations...than the outside consultants were able to do on a contracted basis."
Echoes Gannett Broadcasting's senior vice president, Richard Mallory: "It is absolutely not because we hate consultants." The former consultant's group began making a "big investment in internal training" a decade ago, he says. "We decided we had an infrastructure strong enough to support itself."
But consultants aren't waiting for further explanations. They are intensifying pushes into new markets and new media--to foreign countries, especially those opening to privatization; to cable; and to the new frontier of the Internet. In so doing, they have the potential to extend their sometimes-controversial influence to more newsrooms and news consumers than ever.
"In some respects, opportunities...have never been better," says an executive at Frank N. Magid Associates, a consulting heavyweight that lost some Hearst accounts. John Quarderer says that, with mounting competition from online media, the digital realm and beyond, "the marketing challenges are astoundingly more complex.
"Most businesses are going to want expert guidance."

N EVER MIND THAT station groups have whittled contracts. The guy Electronic Media magazine dubbed "one of the 10 Internet executives you can't afford to ignore" finds TV news consultants to be indispensable guides along the information superhighway.
"There are a gazillion new-media consultant groups who'll tell you how a site should be designed or how people are using it," says Reid Johnson, founder of Internet Broadcasting Systems, a fast-growing network of Web channels. "What we want are traditional media consultants who really understand the patterns of viewer behavior, branding, association with personalities."
Johnson's Minnesota company partners with television stations to launch or bolster Web sites, permanently installing its own team of content providers and marketers at each station--a move some broadcasters view warily. Electronic Media in March gushed that the 47-year-old former news director is "bringing local TV stations into the 21st century," and he's leaning on consultants to help him.
To gauge the impact of a 20-part diet series during television's crucial May ratings period, for example, IBS entrusted Audience Research & Development of Dallas with getting viewers to share their reactions in phone surveys in the dozen markets where the series appeared.
Traditional TV news consultants, Johnson believes, "know the relationship between a viewer and a screen"--whether it's passive or interactive.
Bob Papper is not so sure. The telecommunications professor at Indiana's Ball State University allows that "while old-media consultants have filled a void, whether they can deliver in this area as well as people who've grown up [with new media] remains to be seen."
Consulting firms have been bringing aboard Web-savvy personnel to update and complement staffers with traditional experience--to aid both broadcast and Web clients. Consultants interviewed for this story wouldn't release proprietary details, but they're all pressing client stations to make on-air personalities accessible through e-mail and online chats. They urge supplementing broadcast stories with original reporting and searchable databases for recipes, court records, consumer tips--"news you can use."
With the rise of the Internet, "we really have emphasized speed of service, too," AR&D President Jim Willi says of the company's 14 news consultants serving roughly 140 local stations.
In addition to regularly visiting stations and providing industry updates, "we e-mail newscast reviews, many times on the same day. If there's a major event, like the [World Trade Organization] riot in Seattle, we immediately set up a conference call with all of our consultants and researchers where we strategize.... We'll send an e-mail immediately to the client affected," Willi says.
Team members, most of whom have worked in broadcast or online journalism, contribute follow-up ideas for on-air and Web stories that the stations can mesh with their own. AR&D draws on the databases compiled by it and its corporate kin.
A huge database also informs the other big research-based agency, Magid in Marion, Iowa. Its 350 employees--serving many major industries, with TV news as the core business--have secured "more than 100 'pure play' Internet clients interested only in online communication," says Quarderer, vice president of North American television. Almost nine out of 10 of its advisers have online or broadcast journalism backgrounds.
All the consultants offer varying degrees of service and support, depending on their contracts. And they all try to show innovation. "We're focused not just on delivery of content over the air but from other platforms--whether that be a digital stream or Internet, or something none of us has even seen," says Frank Graham, president of Convergent Communications Consultants. Its six consultants were formerly with McHugh & Hoffman.
In Dallas, the Coaching Co.'s Barry Nash urges client stations to view the Internet as a marketplace and "get in on the conversation." To facilitate that, he and partner Bill Brown are spinning off a new firm specializing in technology "to better tell stories on the Internet." It will use applications such as flash technology--with flashed still pictures, sound and interactive prompts--to animate e-mails for a targeted audience. "We envision using them to promote special projects" such as a news investigation or to get viewer feedback on a regular basis, Nash explains.
And Al Primo not only has directed broadcast clients to the Web but has demonstrated what can be done there. Medium4.com, his Internet-only TV operation, boasts six networks. One delivers foreign news, with former CNN journalist Peter Arnett conducting occasional interviews. The others serve up U.S. news, music, niche programming--including news from Japan--and Spanish-language shows. Medium4.com is the "second-largest streaming media site," Primo says, citing first-quarter figures of 1.4 million page views a month.
Having traditional TV news consultants as guides in cyberspace helps "create a common language," says Suzanne Sell, who left Magid after 17 years to briefly run her own agency. She is now a vice president for Crown Media Inc. "When an information consumer goes out to different media, what he or she sees there will be recognizable and easy to interpret... using the conventions learned through television."
Consultants grounded in television also promote tight writing. "What you have right now is a bunch of newspaper and technical people trying to support the field," observes Robert E. Wood, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and editor who now advises print and online publishers. While it can be superficial, "one of the things TV news does well is get to the point quickly, encapsulate things. And that's something we can all benefit from."
But consultants' most useful online function is prodding client stations to think of themselves as more than broadcasters, says Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute--essentially a nonprofit journalism consulting enterprise.
"The fact is, TV stations have lagged significantly behind our newspaper brethren," says Tompkins, Poynter's group leader for broadcast and online journalism. (See Broadcast Views) "Most of their sites [reveal] a real thinness, a promotion of tonight's news or a rehash of last night's. Most news directors I know don't have the time to sit down and map out a Web strategy. They shovel it or they outsource it."
Tompkins praises consultants who encourage original Web content, "who tell stations, 'Don't just move scripts from one medium to another.'
"Consultants are pushing hard to get newsrooms online, and I think that's appropriate."

W ITH CLAIMS ALREADY staked in most U.S. broadcast markets, news consultants increasingly have been planting their flags on foreign soil. In February, Craig Allen, who teaches at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Telecommunication, counted a record 65 broadcast news clients in 25 different countries that had hired American consultants.
"American-styled news doctors or consultants are doing box-office business over here," observes John Owen, director of the Freedom Forum's European Center in London. The center is a hub for journalism research, training and exhibitions. "There's the view that American television still is superior in terms of production quality and packaging."
An increase in commercial networks and new competition via satellite are fueling the demand in Europe, South Africa, Australia and beyond. Broadcast journalism is "still a relatively young, new craft here," senior consultant Ned Warwick says from Magid's London office. The commercial networks' resources are limited, he says, but "they're committed to quality."
His company's first overseas TV news venture came in 1978 with an assignment in New Zealand. Now it reaches out from its Iowa headquarters to news clients in roughly 10 foreign lands, though the number fluctuates. Warwick--with two decades in broadcast journalism, most recently directing ABC News coverage in Europe, the Middle East and Africa--has consulted in Spain, Finland, Norway, Hungary, Nigeria and Malaysia. In England, he has advised the prestigious British Broadcasting Corp.
The United Kingdom "does very good news," especially the BBC with its "superlative news agenda," Warwick says. Elsewhere in European TV news, he finds journalists "cover the events [but] need to provide deeper explanation and more context.... You get a lot of stories about government with cameras panning across the [legislative] chambers, without the pictures making a lot of sense."
A dearth of competition represents another distinction from U.S. television.
"In many parts of Europe, it's a state channel and one or two commercial channels. They often don't go on the air at the same time, so that 'how you stand in the ratings' question isn't really a factor. Television had a long gestation with a relatively limited amount of competition in the United States. That's not going to happen in Europe," Warwick continues, noting the expected onslaught of digital, cable and interactive media.
"Networks that have been on the air five years are going to be surrounded with these other competitors while they're still developing.... My worry is [they] lack the proper appreciation for how keenly competitive this business can be."
Warwick helps prepare stations for battle by imparting the best of American broadcast news. "It's well produced, it's very conscious of how you have to construct programs to be accessible to viewers.... The writing tends to be better and more focused," he says. "I leave the bad stuff: the disinterest in foreign news, the disinclination to do process news or government news, the preoccupation with...gratuitous crime. If I even tried to push the more lurid version of a flash-and-trash newscast, I would be laughed right out of the room."
"Where the consultants have been helpful is in the storytelling that so distinguishes the best of American television journalism," the Freedom Forum's Owen echoes in an e-mail interview. "TV reporting over here often used to take the form of 'wallpapering' over dense scripts that were exceedingly hard to follow and lacked central characters and sharp focus."
But, "what I find as an avid watcher and active participant...in broadcast groups is that some of the talent coaching is giving us far too many of the forced walking stand-ups that litter American television screens," adds Owen, an Indiana native who'd been chief of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.'s London bureau. "You see a lot of flapping arms and uncoordinated movement among these on-air correspondents who've been told to...be more informal."
American consultants even have loosened up BBC newscasts, Arizona State's Allen says, noting more on-air interaction between reporters and "presenters," or anchors.
"We'd gotten into a slightly buttoned-up style," concedes the BBC's deputy chief executive for news, Richard Sambrook. Magid's Warwick was brought in to conduct a series of classes on how to more effectively write and package the news for today's TV audiences. Now, newscasts are "more warm, viewer-friendly," Sambrook says. "We're experimenting with correspondents in front of big graphics."
The changes are paying off in viewership, he adds. "The main evening news has put on share and has become the most watched," pulling ahead of rival news provider ITN "by a pretty significant margin."
A New Zealand broadcaster-turned-academic believes the consultants he brought in to state-owned TVNZ beginning in the late 1980s "sometimes found us hard work, because we were resistant to what we considered excesses in the American style." Nonetheless, Paul Norris--then directing TVNZ's news and current affairs, now heading the New Zealand Broadcasting School at the Christchurch Polytechnic--says in an e-mail that the consultants "played a significant role" in "finessing the bulletin." They provided guidance on news presentation and marketing strategy, says Norris, who's contributing a chapter to a book on the Americanization of news coverage.
The Coaching Co.'s Nash recalls working with TVNZ's anchors or "readers" over a five-year period. "We weren't there as emissaries of happy talk," Nash says. "We were encouraging them to do things to indicate to viewers they weren't just reading an introduction, they were actually watching, they were connected and aware.... In New Zealand at that time, the response [was] more reserved than it would have been in a great many local TV stations in this country."
Nash's firm is doing work for Australian clients and is considering partnering with a consulting associate in Barcelona, Spain, to expand overseas business. Especially when going abroad, he says, "It's really critical that you respect the local culture and the way news is evolving.... It's not a matter of just overlaying" American custom.
Diplomacy is essential to success, agrees Jack Bowen, a partner in Convergent Communications Consultants and the former McHugh & Hoffman. C3's consultants have had client stations in Berlin, Budapest and, recently, Bogotá. They also have an assignment in Istanbul.
Bowen observes that Turkey's conservative Muslim, male-dominated society, while "moving rapidly to a contemporary business culture," has objectified women in broadcast news. "You're talking about a selection of anchorwomen there based purely on beauty. They're basically just readers. You run into that same thing in South America," says Bowen, who gently prods these women to build storytelling and other journalism skills.
"You have to be sensitive as you try to shift that balance," he adds. "In the long run, women are going to have to be strong reporters, not just readers. They're going to have to have equal status with men." He stops, chuckling. "Oh, maybe that's imposing an American view."

C ONSULTANTS WON'T FIND A welcome mat at CNNI, the international arm of CNN. "We don't use outside folk to help us pull our bulletins together," CNNI President Chris Cramer says. While Atlanta-based CNN does use talent coaches and occasionally has its broadcasters assemble focus groups, Cramer abhors "the trend in America" of adjusting programming based on a test audience's reaction. "I'm not prepared to produce a broadcast by some formula, though I know some people do."
But the reception is warming among domestic cable enterprises, says Joe Rovitto, president of Clemensen Rovitto. Two of the Connecticut consulting firm's 22 clients are in cable. Essential Florida News in Orlando, for example, relies on the agency's "market research as well as news advice," says Rovitto, a former news director in Milwaukee and his native Pittsburgh.
For years, cable stations have "been eating into traditional television" ratings, Rovitto says. "As they become more competitive, they want more help in how to program."
Ohio News Network, a statewide cable operation in Columbus, contracts with Magid and AR&D for research, talent coaching and strategy. But Paul Paolicelli, ONN's director of news and programming and a board member of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, says he generally doesn't talk journalism with the consultants--though he worked that side of the fence for Magid in the late 1970s and for AR&D in the mid-'80s. His perspective then was that of a journalist, not "someone trying to drive numbers and sales," he contends. "What you hear more and more from [consultants] is promotional strategies. The general managers put more priority on the business end."
And it is, after all, about business. A market economy and the public's appetite for news will ensure consultants' survival--in every medium including local television, consultants and academics insist.
"I think the local video information business is going to be around for a long time," Magid's Quarderer says. "Whether it's called television when we hit the next millennium, who knows? We're just gearing up to provide that guidance, no matter what the platform. People will always spend money to reach information consumers with the messages they need to have delivered."
Primo agrees, revising his earlier, gloomy forecast. "When business gets tight and things get tough--when it really matters a lot to be No. 1 or 2 in the ratings, because the [advertisers] buying on all four stations will want to buy on only the top--stations will go back to the consultants."