ABC7's Barr against crew-sharing

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Posted by on May 07, 2009 at 10:09:10:

Channel 7 general manager says station's independence too important for crew-sharing

May 7, 2009

BY LEWIS LAZARE Sun-Times Columnist

For Emily Barr, it took all of about four minutes to decide she didn't want to be part of a groundbreaking -- and potentially risky -- Chicago television newsgathering collective that begins Monday. That is when NBC-owned WMAQ-Channel 5, Fox-owned WFLD-Channel 32, CBS-owned WBBM-Channel 2 and Tribune Co.-owned WGN-Channel 9 will start sharing eight pooled camera crews (two from each station).

The crews will be dispatched to selected news events to shoot pool footage each station can use as it sees fit.

So far as anyone involved can ascertain, this is the first time four "competing stations" in a major television market have joined forces in this fashion for daily news coverage.

Barr, general manager at local news leader ABC-owned WLS-Channel 7, said she instinctively felt the new venture would strip WLS of some, if not all, of what the station most zealously seeks to safeguard: its image as an independent Chicago news operation.

Of course Barr knows and respects some of the local news players from other stations who have signed on to this new arrangement, and she wonders aloud why some of them so readily jumped on board.

She suspects they may have had no choice in the matter because of pressure from their respective corporate bosses, coupled with the desperate need at all the local stations to reduce overhead wherever possible.

But even if the goal of the venture is to cut costs, Barr also wonders how much this pooling of camera crews will really lower overhead.

On-air talent typically eats up a large chunk of a local station's news budget.

Bruno Cohen, who arrived from Sacramento last fall to head up WBBM, insists the decision to go along with project at his station was his and his alone.

The venture strikes Cohen as a most sensible way for news operations to stop duplicating efforts at the many seemingly (but not always) perfunctory press conferences and other happenings where every station doesn't need a full complement of camera crew and on-air talent present. And Cohen's News Director Jeff Kiernan agrees.

"We can take those crews that would have been covering a press conference and go out into the neighborhoods to cover other things that will help distinguish our newscasts from the competition," said Kiernan over lunch Wednesday.

Kiernan believes that, in the end, the way each news department actually uses the pool footage will determine how successful each station is at attracting viewers and the ratings that come with them.

Still, the new consortium represents a real opportunity for ratings leader WLS to separate itself even further from the rest of the local TV news pack.

On Wednesday, Barr wouldn't say just how aggressively she may start promoting WLS as the city's only truly independent TV news source. But she hinted she is seriously considering the matter.

Even WBBM's Cohen admitted he wouldn't be surprised if Barr used this opportunity to try to gain some leverage in the market, which will surely -- in the months to come -- be watched closely by local TV news executives all around the country.

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