NBC, Fox TV stations to share camera crews for local news

NEW YORK -- NBC and Fox unveiled on Thursday a local television news-sharing plan that promises to reduce the number of reporters, trucks and helicopters assigned to cover major events — and could grow into a nationwide effort to slash one of the biggest costs for most TV stations.

Following a test that began in May, the stations owned by NBC and Fox in Philadelphia will formalize in January an arrangement that turns some of their camera crews over to a jointly run assignment desk. It determines which local events they'll photograph, and feeds the raw video to each station. The stations prepare their own stories.

The companies — which compete with each other at MSNBC and Fox News Channel, but are partners at the online video service Hulu — plan to copy this process in other cities in which each owns TV stations, including Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Dallas and Washington.

They'll also open it up to other TV, radio, print and online news providers.

"This is Fox and NBC trying to create a template for the industry, and to roll it out nationally," says Fox Television Stations CEO Jack Abernathy.

In a typical market, he says, "four (stations) are covering the same five stories every day. We bring the same pictures back every day. This venture will just cover those four or five stories in a pooling situation. And it has nothing to do with homogenization. It's, 'Gee, why don't we take our limited resources and have them focus on independent reporting?' "

Morning, early-evening, and late-evening newscasts generate more than 40% of the revenue at most major stations, and news gathering is one of the biggest expenses. But news ratings have been falling, and local ad markets have weakened along with the rest of the economy.

More than a third of the stations in the 150 largest markets cut their staffs in the first half of 2008, according to a study for the Radio-Television News Directors Association.

While NBC and Fox say that the news-sharing plan will help cut costs, they wouldn't say how much they might save or where the savings will go.

"We will take a look at this very carefully and make the decisions at the appropriate time," NBC Local Media President John Wallace says.

That makes some outsiders suspicious.

"I'm sure of one thing: They're not going to reinvest the cost savings in improved news coverage," says Media Access Project CEO Andrew Schwartzman, a frequent industry critic. "These cost savings are going to be diverted elsewhere."

But the companies say that by sharing responsibility to shoot major events, stations will have flexibility to use their own crews to prepare stories that will stand out on any venue.

"It goes to how the consumer is going after media," Wallace says. "They're online, they're on portable devices; they aren't just watching a broadcast. This gives us more access to content, and it's available on all platforms."