Saturday, October 24, 2015

Leaving Las Vegas

There are, I suppose, good ways and bad ways to leave a job, especially if you’re leaving involuntarily.  In TV news the different styles and methods by which people choose the exit door, or by which they have the method of departure chosen for them,  practically constitute a spectator sport, especially if the person leaving is in management.  Which takes us to KVVU-TV in Las Vegas.

KVVU is the Fox affiliate in Sin City, and happens to be owned by the Meredith company—which, in the interests of full disclosure, let me tell you is now in the process of a merger with Media General, a company I used to work for.  I won’t get into the merits of the firing because I can’t; I know very little about Adam Bradshaw, the veteran and by most accounts capable news director at the heart of our story.  Rick Gevers’ weekly  newsletter reveals to us that Bradshaw had been news director there for about 9 years, which in TV terms amounts to a very good run (news director years are roughly equivalent to doggie years, playing out to an aging ratio of about one to four).  The day before the firing, the city had hosted the first Democratic Presidential Debate, for which Mr. Bradshaw said his station pulled out all the stops, as I’m sure it did.  If you can imagine putting together a coverage plan as aggressive as that that one had to be, busting your butt to get it onto the air in such a fashion as to uphold your personal pride and senses of competitiveness and professionalism, and then hearing your boss say, “Thanks, now GTFO,” you might begin to understand a little bit of what it’s like to be a TV news director.  Nothing personal, just go, and don’t let the door hit your butt on the way out.  Or do.

The level of animosity between the news director and his boss would seem to have been low and mutual respect fairly high, because Bradshaw was not escorted from the building and he did get in the final word, which was interesting.   Now, if this were you and you know that  you are going to be able to announce your own departure to the staff, how would you handle it—keeping in mind that whatever you say will remain writ large on the Internet for all eternity?  According to  multiple trade reports, here’s what Adam wrote about his boss, Todd Brown, in a memo to the staff, which of course then immediately hit the Internet:  Bradshaw said Brown “made the very classy offer to allow me to resign my position today, but I declined and he chose to fire me. He and I have very different opinions about how a News Department should run and we were never going to agree. I hold no bitterness towards Todd for wanting what he wants and you should not either.  People move on in this business… I will move on in this business.”

It’s always risky to admit you’ve been fired, but on the other hand terminations are so common for news directors that it probably will make no difference in Mr. Bradshaw’s career aspirations.  Looked at that way, his words offering to simply move on are gracious—because a major unstated point here is that he will have to physically move on, and this is no minor imposition.  With only 4 to 5 TV stations per  market, news directors’ jobs are incredibly competitive and hard to land, so getting fired is tantamount to being run out of town.  Like your apartment or house?  Too bad, so sad because the odds are great that you’ll be giving it up as you search for that next gig, which could take you far afield.  You and your family, and your dog, cat, parakeet, snake and gerbil, if you have such things, will be moving on down the line.  Fortunately, we’re in a large country with lots of options.   If you’re going to be a news director you will move a lot, either through having been shown the door by someone who thinks you’re not good enough or simply not the right person for whatever reason or because someone in a bigger, more lucrative market is making you a better offer.   Yes, that happens too.  You bet.

At this point you may be dying to know what on earth is going on in that building that after ten years the GM suddenly has to sh*t-can the news director over creative differences.  It’s incredibly common for new bosses to want to bring in their own teams, but Brown isn’t new, having already been GM for about three years according to reports.  And for that matter, what kind of creative differences could there be?  How complicated can it be just to go out and cover the damned news?  Bradshaw chose not to shed any light on that.  While I can’t testify as to the situation in that particular newsroom, I can certainly tell you that pressures have never been higher to find new and different ways to raise ratings and make a buck.  If you’ve paid any attention to local news at all in recent years (and many of you haven’t, which is part of the problem) then you know that we’re hiring  them younger and younger, we’re tolerating more mistakes as a result, and there are fewer and fewer staffers out there chasing real stories, which means that good stories often go begging while reporters concentrate on those all-important police chases, murders, stabbings, shootings, car wrecks and so on—basically, anything semi-compelling that can be shot “one man band” style, with the reporter operating his or her own camera and sometimes live gear.  This is not going to get better; it’s a simple matter of economics.  A reporter can cover a one-stop-shopping murder in an hour and then go on to two more just like it, and those stories are going to capture the viewers’ attention at a far greater level than, say, a much more expensive story about how radicalized politics and dark money are taking this country down a dangerous path and what this means for your city, a story that is going to require tons of research and interview effort and which cannot be turned in a single hour, or maybe not even in a single week.  And oh, you’ll need to devote a bit more to the report in terms of airtime than you were planning to devote to that one minute ten second murder story.  Just sayin’.

There certainly are worse stylistic methods by which to cash out than what Bradshaw chose.  I’ve seen them all and participated in a few myself on both ends.  Back in 2005 when Media General and I parted ways, I gave interviews to local reporters about what I saw as the truth of what was going on.  That was dumb and I was lucky it didn’t destroy my career; thankfully, I still had fans after that who were willing to hire me for what they knew I could bring to the table—for which I’m very grateful, because I had a blast in that next gig.  In fact, I wound up working for that next company not once but for two additional times as my career progressed.  It’s the job I left most recently in order to pursue my writing, which started out as what was intended as a two-year career break in the face of premonitions that I was about to run out of time, premonitions that turned out to be totally accurate thanks to a cancer diagnosis.  I left that job on very good terms, I’m glad to say, and remain friends with my former coworkers and bosses.  Or, let’s put it this way: those I was friends with as I walked out the door are still friends today.  So whatever I said in my departure note must not have been too bad.

I do recall getting an outpouring of support, as did Adam Bradshaw, who racked up dozens and dozens of well-wishes on his Facebook page.  You can add my personal well wishes to those he’s received so far; it’s never been tougher for a news director to successfully change jobs than it is right now, thanks to the competitive pressures I mentioned.

As I’m sure you can imagine, it takes a huge measure of trust to allow an employee to issue a public goodbye “unsupervised” in this type of situation.  These kinds of things have blown up big time before, often enough to where you rarely see them anymore.  This is why God invented security guards.  My personal favorite take-this-job-and-shove-it gesture came from an anchor who announced, on air, that she was being fired, and told viewers that they likely could catch her on a better competing station soon.  They couldn’t, and I don’t know if she ever worked again; certainly she didn’t in that town.  I know of others where unsavory accusations have been bandied about (yes, live on air) by disgruntled people who felt they’d been wronged in some fashion or other.

I once witnessed a GM order a terminated anchor physically escorted from the premises by two—count ‘em, two—security guards, one of which was armed.  Well, the employee had  made some hotheaded comments about what could happen if they were to try to pry his desk away from him, so there you go.

But then not every on-air departure announcement winds up being planned.  There was the classic case this year of an Alaskan reporter who, having just admitted committing some egregiously unethical conduct, F-bombed the audience, saying “F**k it, I quit,” live on the air and then walked off the set.  No one saw that coming, and I’d venture to say it will never be topped.

You might guess from all this bad behavior that TV news pressures can get to be incredible.  Mix in the usual daily dose of crazy, add in some out-of-control egos, and anything can happen.  And does.  What happened at KVVU last week was among the mildest of the mild.

So what happens there next, do you think, at KVVU?  The GM is now tasked with finding the next miracle worker—you know, that 20-something guy or gal who has all the right ideas for turning the station into a profit workhorse and has only been waiting for someone in hiring authority to say there you are, come on in, we’ve been looking everywhere for you, where have you been all our lives, go ahead, give it a shot.  Because, you know, there are so many of those waiting in line for their chance to prove they can “take TV news to the next level,” or apply creative new “out of the box thinking,” or bring “a fresh young approach” to the business, or “reengineer the process,” or perform whatever other catch phrase it is that’s in vogue at the moment, or that can be made to be in vogue.  They’re just waiting to be discovered.  The big breakthrough could take place any day now.

What, you don’t see that happening?  If such a Big New TV News Approach really were standing by in the wings, wouldn’t someone have glommed onto it by now, brought it out, and made it work?

It’s a good question.  I speak as someone who has, on more than one occasion, promised that I’m that very guy who can work that very magic.  And I do claim, with a very straight face, to have carried out some ratings prestidigitation from time to time and furthermore to have done it by producing and promoting reputable journalistic content.  So I don’t rule it out.  Sustaining such a strategy in the face of audience boredom is the key.  But I am still a believer in old school values.  Maybe there is a new approach that will burn the woods down like station owners are always looking for.  I don’t know.  But it seems to me it’s better to build than burn, and that was always my approach.  I do know this:  After roughly 65 years of broadcast TV news history, it’s clear that there is no secret “thing you can try” that’s going to provide that miracle just lying around waiting for someone to come along, pick it up and develop it.  But one common denominator you’ll find in most successful TV stations is consistency and sustainability in quality and commitment of strategy and talent.

What keeps me standing in awe of the TV news industry is this hope that always seems to spring eternal in the breasts of general managers and their bosses that the Next Big Idea is just around the corner, that someone will emerge who can, with the flip of a switch, turn the station into a ratings-belching powerhouse—and without a whole lot of effort.   In this scenario news directors are viewed a lot like light bulbs; if you burn one out just plug in the next one; they’re all about the same.  And because these jobs pay well, for the most part, there never seems to be any shortage of those willing to give it a shot and take the abuse. 

So back to Las Vegas.  On the one hand, it will be interesting to see what kind of massive new changes will be put into place that required the termination of the veteran news director to get.  On the other, it happens in college and professional sports all the time, doesn’t it?  Sometimes you get dramatic change and sometimes you can’t tell the difference as teams lurch from one disappointing regime to the next.

In any case, the results should be interesting.  So, to the Adam Bradshaws and Todd Browns of this world—and everyone caught between them—here’s wishing you the very best of luck as you try to move forward with this lovable and once beautiful old biddy of an aging enterprise called TV news.   May fortune favor you and the many colleagues in your same situation as you search for that Next Big Idea that’s going to revitalize the industry and put it back on track to doing what it’s supposed to.

Which is, by the way, what, exactly? 

Now do you begin to see why TV news is in the shape it’s in these days?  But by all accounts, TV news types are brighter than the average bear.  Surely there’s some place where they can look these answers up.  We’ll wait.  The changes should be interesting.

Or at least as interesting as they’ve been all the times before.

Oh. By the way, I almost forgot.  Rick Gevers reports that with Bradshaw being shown the door, the senior TV news director in the Las Vegas market is KSNV-TV's Mark Neerman, who's been on the job ten months.  Yes, ten months is enough to make him the senior news director in the market.  This is entirely typical of the way it works in local TV  news.



  1. Been there, done that 3 times. 1: News reported to Programming. New PD tried recruiting Asst ND to set ND up for firing so she could get the job. ND got wise & found a new job. 2: Again, GM/PD/PROMO all came from same place & wanted existing ND out. ND learned name of replacement & confronted GM who denied it. 4 weeks later, after ND's new son was born, GM dropped the hammer. Incredulous ND asked why he lied. Said didn't want to jeopardize the baby. 3: After 8 years of slow but steady growth, ND was bed-ridden w/back trouble. First, time back in the office, new GM, under orders from corporate, gave him notice. Best thing ever happened to him.

    1. I have heard so many stories like this. The way it's sometimes explained to me, exposing ourselves to this kind of poor treatment is part of the lifestyle we acccept when we decide to pursue this career path. It's like of like knowing that if you work for John Gotti, you won't be like the other kids.

  2. Good one.
    Can't wait to read YOUR next big idea.