Tough times prod TV stations to pool efforts

Ad revenue is down, news crews have to do more with less to save money, and the internet is a growing menace.

So this week three Atlanta affiliates, WAGA, WXIA and WGCL, launched a test to pool their resources, using one cameraman on some stories such as press conferences.

"The Local News Service" idea is led by WAGA, the affiliate of the FOX network, which began rolling it out in other cities, such as Philadelphia, last year, and is happy with the result, said WAGA general manager Gene McHugh.

WAGA news director Bud McEntee said the plan will save his newsroom money, though he wouldn't say how much, and eliminate coverage redundancies on many stories.

"How many times have you seen a (press conference) where you've got six cameras lined up all with the same shot?," said McEntee, WAGA's news director for 17 years. "In a thriving competitive environment . . . it's really wasteful. This frees us up to really expand our coverage of the news with stories that are our own."

Editors at the three stations coordinate to decide if there is a story that day for which a single cameraman can feed footage to all three. In other cities stations have started sharing helicopters but that's not been done in Atlanta, said McHugh.

Conspicuously absent from the pool is the city's No.1 rated news station, WSB-TV, owned by Cox Enteprises, also owner of The Atlanta Journal-Constiution.

WSB vice president and general manager Bill Hoffman said he understands the economics driving the idea. Nationwide, advertising revenues at TV affiliates are down about 20 percent on average. Pooling saves money and manpower.

Still, said Hoffman, "Right now we're trying very hard to hold onto our independence."

McHugh and McEntee said the deal won't dampen competition for news and ratings.Officials at WXIA, an NBC affiliate, and WGCL, a CBS affiliate, couldn't be reached for comment.

The stations call the pool a test, said McHugh, because they are initially getting feeds from each other through microwave transmissions, which aren't always reliable. Once they're wired by fiber-optic cable in a few weeks, said McHugh, it won't be a test anymore. It will be another new reality in local news.