L.A.'s top anchors and TV reporters routinely earn more money than the president of the United States, members of Congress and many a corporate CEO. But is sitting at a Formica desk and reading from a teleprompter really worth millions of dollars?
Many local TV executives and agents insist that the answer is yes. And the reason all comes down to numbers. In local news, like in professional sports, what you earn is determined by how well you score in the ratings, that is.
"They are consummate professionals who command the respect of the viewers who are inviting these people into their living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms," said Carole Black, general manager of KNBC-TV Channel 4. "If someone is capable of building up trust, you will pay him or her commensurate with that talent. They end up earning a salary they have worked years to have achieved."
The highest-paid anchor in Los Angeles is KNBC's Paul Moyer, who reportedly earns $2 million a year. The veteran anchor worked for years at KNBC in the shadow of Tom Snyder. Moyer later moved to KABC and was wooed back Channel 4, resulting in a bidding war that earned him his record salary.
The only anchors said to make more than Moyer are in New York: WNBC's Chuck Scarborough and WABC's Bill Beutel, though sources decline to say how much more.
Moyer is not the only local member of the million-dollar club. KCBS-TV Channel 2's anchorwoman Ann Martin, who was wooed away from KABC-TV Channel 7, earns $1 million a year, according to sources as does KABC's Laura Diaz. KCAL-TV Channel 9's Pat Harvey also earns $1 million, while KNBC's Colleen Williams is close to that mark.
"New York salaries are No. 1, but Los Angeles is very close," said Ed Hookstratten, an entertainment attorney who has guided the careers of Tom Brokaw, Bryant Gumbel and Snyder.
Other anchors and news personnel are well into the six figures. KABC's Harold Greene is said to make between $700,000 and $800,000. Veteran KNBC anchor Kelly Lange makes about $750,000. KNBC's weatherman Fritz Coleman and sportscaster Fred Roggin earn between $500,000 and $750,000 each. KCBS sportscaster Jim Hill makes $750,000, according to a well-placed source.
A top reporter in this market can make as much as $300,000 at a network owned-and-operated station. A journeyman reporter can get $150,000. A neophyte coming into the market from another station is often in the $70,000 range.
Hookstratten agrees with Black that talented on-air personalities are worth their high salaries. And in an increasingly competitive environment, he notes, it is often a seller's market.
"It is the flow," he said. "With the addition of MSNBC, CNBC and Fox News, good people are in a stronger position to command a great salary."
John Severino, the former general manager of KABC and former president of ABC TV, said local news is the second-biggest revenue generator for network-owned stations, after the prime-time lineup. Such revenues command high-priced players who, in the case of anchors, help brand a station and give it a personality.
"You get people relating to a TV station. Anchors give you a personality," he said. "There is no one holding a gun to the heads of these general managers."
Joe Saltzman, a former KCBS news producer and now professor and associate director of the Annenberg School for Communication at USC, agreed that getting the right person in front of a camera is key.
"In Los Angeles, a weatherman is a celebrity," Saltzman said. "They have fan clubs. If every station has the same information, what do you have to sell? People, the believable personality. They will get the big bucks."
Most TV anchors and reporters negotiate their salaries through agents, who are paid between 5 percent and 10 percent of the reporter's gross pay. They use both major talent agencies or small, boutique agencies that deal specifically with TV news personnel, which also includes writers and producers. Attorneys like Hookstratten are usually paid a flat fee for their expertise in negotiating deals. Some lawyers are paid by the hour.
"Part of (the worth of news personnel) is real value, and some of it is perceived value," said Henry Reisch, a vice president at the William Morris Agency in New York. "If someone you know brings viewers, they are worth something. The marketplace sets that and you create a salary structure."
The big money comes when a bidding war erupts between two or more stations. "This happens when someone's contract is up and he or she is considered valuable to another station in that market and the price goes up," Reisch said.
Arnold J. Kleiner, general manager of KABC, said he is in a quandary when it comes to negotiating salaries.
"When I deal with people, it is hard to tell what they are worth," he said. "There is a range, and it is important to be in that range. If an anchor is at $1 million, you shouldn't try to get him to work for $500,000. You usually end up with a fair deal. But it is like buying a car. The salesman wants to get as much as he can, and the buyer wants to get it for as little as he can."
While anchors and the high-priced news teams surrounding them are important to the success of a newscast, they may not be as important as they once were.
Through the late '60s and early '70s, KNXT's (now KCBS) Big News with Jerry Dunphy was the leader in local Los Angeles news. When the ratings began to slip, Russ Barry, the general manager of KNXT at the time, considered dropping Dunphy.
During a tennis match with then KABC's John Severino, Barry said he had heard that Severino was thinking about hiring Dunphy. Severino said he wouldn't. "He's too old and over the hill," Severino recalled telling Barry.
Dunphy was dropped, and KABC quickly grabbed him.
"Russ called and asked why I did that," Severino recalled. "I told him I lied, and I said, 'I think we can kick your butt,' and we did for the next decade."
But such a precipitous audience shift probably wouldn't happen today. There are too many other factors involved in the success of a newscast, like the strength of lead-ins the show preceding the newscast and increased competition from cable news programming.
When Moyer moved from KABC to KNBC, it took awhile for the ratings to follow. Similarly, Ann Martin, KABC's premier anchorwoman, has been struggling at KCBS after jumping ship.
"You can't blame her," said Hookstratten, her attorney. "Channel 2 isn't competitive at 4 p.m. or during prime time. Lead-ins are important."
John Culliton, general manager of KCBS, said he doubts that any one anchor could cause an upheaval in the L.A. market if he or she switched channels today.
"I don't think any one, single person can change the course of a market," said Culliton. "It is a good idea to get the best people. It drives up your credibility, and you have probably enhanced potential. But with a market like this, with so much going on, you need other support, which is why we have developed the team concept."
As to seven-figure salaries, he thinks some, like Moyer, are worth it, while others aren't. "He is of great value to them and he fits their agenda." Culliton said.
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