Wednesday, December 8, 2010

"JOA" for television

The announcement of a shared services agreement between KIFI and KIDK this week has a familiar ring to it – newspapers in some markets negotiated similar “joint operating agreements” with mixed success 25 or more years ago.

At this point only one thing is certain – in the long battle between KIDK and KIFI dating back nearly 50 years, KIFI is the winner.

The agreement essentially turns all of KIDK’s operations over to KIFI, while allowing KIDK to continue to broadcast CBS network programming plus, presumably, a lineup of syndicated programming separate from that offered by KIFI. All but a dozen or so of KIDK’s 50-plus employees will be laid off. Perhaps of greatest interest locally, KIFI will be providing the news for both stations beginning sometime in January. The exact financial arrangements have not been disclosed.

This is a huge coup for KIFI, which was the latecomer to Idaho Falls television, launching in 1961, eight years after KID (which became KIDK). KPVI, based in Pocatello, came along in the early 1970s. All three stations attempt to cover the entire eastern Idaho/western Wyoming region, but it’s long been clear that KIFI and KIDK have been seen as Idaho Falls stations and KPVI is considered the Pocatello station.

KIDK, owned by Fisher Communications based in Seattle, has been struggling for some time, both financially and in the local news ratings. KIFI, particularly by maintaining the longstanding anchor team of Jay Hildebrandt and Karole Honas, has dominated news ratings, which helped the station set and get higher advertising rates. The agreement will essentially leave Idaho Falls and Pocatello with one TV station each that produces any kind of original local news programming.

Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, a non-profit school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Florida, believes there will be more such agreements between competing TV stations in the near future.

“I think that is part of a trend. I think the nature of the TV business is that there is a lot of financial logic to combining news operations,” he said. “To put it another way, it’s not in the cards for a lot of markets to support three or four news staffs.”

Edmonds compares the trend to what happened in newspapers 25 or more years ago when newspapers in large markets formed joint operating agreements. Many of those agreements have since failed with the closure of one or more newspapers, but they still exist in places like Salt Lake City and Detroit.

The combining of TV operations is more likely to be successful than the largely failed experiments of five or 10 years ago for newspapers and TV stations to combine newsgathering and, sometimes, sales resources, Edmonds believes.

“At the end of the day these (newspapers and television stations) are pretty different cultures, both in a sales way and in a news way. This sort of agreement stands a better chance of working then the cross-media attempts did between TV and newspapers.”

Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member for broadcast and online at Poynter, believes there will continue to be a washout of TV stations providing news.

“Not every market needs four news stations. It’s just a fire hose of information and in some places there’s a garden hose of interest,” he said.

With sources for news, information and advertising becoming increasing fragmented, a deal like this was only a matter of time. Eastern Idaho was probably never really a three-station market (let alone four, with the addition of Fox, or even more as the local affiliates roll out digital channels). In recent years, KIDK could never overcome the solid performance of the KIFI news team. Both organizations saw plenty of comings and goings, but Hildebrandt and Honas were the constants.

(In the interest of full disclosure, KIFI was owned by the Post Company – the same company that owns the Post Register – until 2005, when it was sold to News-Press and Gazette Company out of St. Joseph, Missouri.)

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