Bad news in WGA East 'white paper' study

ABC, CBS job cuts affect quality

The WGA East on Wednesday released a "white paper" study by the guild purporting to show a lowering of news quality at two broadcast networks with which it is locked in protracted and fractious contract talks.

Based on interviews with WGA members at ABC and CBS between May 2006 and April, survey results show "the conglomerates have slashed jobs overall, converted full-timers to part-timers and combined jobs," the guild said.

"The result is too many conflicting demands on the few workers who are left, resulting in a lower-quality news product," the WGAE said in an executive summary of the report.

The report also identified a trend toward fewer news stories overall and a shift toward softer news items, which it said often amounted to "infotainment" or promotions for outlets and products owned by the same company as overseeing newscasts. The WGA presented those findings against a background of diminished guild influence on news operations.

"Twenty-five years ago, most jobs at the major media networks and their owned-and-operated stations in the largest markets were unionized," the guild said. "But year after year the media conglomerates have fought to weaken union contracts ... in order to add more temporary and part-time workers and reduce full-time staff positions."

The report also cited a trend of "removing union jurisdiction rules to increase the number of workers holding multiple job titles at the same time."

Jurisdiction matters have been among the more contentious topics under discussion in negotiations between the WGAE and the two networks. Pay issues also remain to be settled.

Meanwhile, the parties' contracts covering TV and radio newswriters in several markets expired more than two years ago, with employees continuing to work under terms of the old pacts. There are no new negotiating sessions planned between the WGAE and ABC or CBS.

An ABC spokeswoman declined comment on the report. But in late June, the network sent a memo to its WGAE-covered employees stating its case on some related issues.

The mailing stated that ABC won't schedule further negotiating sessions because the network gave the WGAE its list of contract proposals, which ABC said is its "final" word.

"There comes a time in negotiations of any kind where it must come to an end," ABC told the employees.

Officials at CBS weren't immediately available for comment on the WGAE report.

The report made several recommendations that the guild said would "ensure that broadcast media provide a higher standard of news quality."

Among them was a call for a return to the broadcast "fairness doctrine" requiring newscasters to present multiple sides of public issues. The guild also suggested that video footage carry "a continuous, frame-by-frame visual notification of its source."