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News Investment

News Investment

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Introduction

Signs of belt-tightening abound in the newsrooms of the nation’s local television stations.

The number of news people is shrinking. Fewer stations are hiring and the median staff size heading into 2008 had slid from an all-time high the previous year. The move to expand or add news programs also appeared to be slowing.

And stations are increasingly looking at ways to shoot, edit and produce news video with fewer people.

Salaries for news professionals did grow on average in 2007. But the gains were almost exclusively made by on-air employees. The behind-the-cameras staff barely kept up with inflation. And throughout 2008, there were signs of stations now beginning to jettison some of their most senior people, including top anchors, to save money. Cutbacks accelerated in the last few months of 2008, with all types of newsroom positions being shed.

Moving ahead, 2009 is shaping up to be perhaps even more difficult. In the summer of 2008, a survey of news directors found that most expected staffing levels to be flat in the coming year, and a growing number feared that cuts were in the offing.

And that survey was completed before the economy soured in the fourth quarter. Analysts now warn that the situation in 2009 could be even worse.

One other potentially worrisome development for local news operations is that networks are increasingly demanding money from their affiliates for programming, while in previous years the payments moved in the other direction.

Still to be gauged is whether stations will take better advantage of the extra channels offered by the digital conversion to add such things as all-sports or all-weather channels, and whether cable providers will be compelled to carry them, and how audiences and advertisers will respond if they do. At the end of 2008, local all-weather channels were the most common at many stations, although few had yet to offer different types of content on their digital sub-channels.

TV News Budgets, Staffing Stay Flat

After investing in costly equipment to prepare for the mandatory digital transition planned for February 2009 but delayed until June, news budgets were flat for the most recent year for which there is data.

Fewer than half of all news directors (46%) had increased their budgets 2007, a drop from a year earlier (54%), according to the latest survey conducted by Papper for the Radio-Television News Directors Association.1

Another third (34%) reported that their budgets would stay at the same level, and 13% reported cutting their news budget, up from 8% in 2006.

Larger stations seemed to fare worse in 2007. At stations in the top 25 markets, about a third of news directors (33%) reported that their news budgets had increased. For stations in markets ranked 101 to 150, 41% said their news budgets increased in 2007, while half of station news directors in markets 26 to 50 (51%) said their news budgets increased.

How did the other commercial stations — those not affiliated with one of the major four networks — do in 2007? Worse, in general, than network affiliates.

Slightly fewer of the independents reported a budget increase than their counterparts at affiliated stations, 44% to 46%. And more news directors at independent stations said they decreased their budgets in 2007; 22% saw budget decreases compared with 13% at affiliated stations.

Papper’s survey was fielded in the fourth quarter of 2007, a year before the worst of the upheaval in the economy.

An updated survey of a smaller group of station news directors was conducted in the second quarter of 2008. Responses revealed a drop in confidence among the directors that they would be able to maintain newsgathering resources or add new staffers as they looked ahead.

As he reviewed the data with PEJ, Papper cautioned that the situation likely had worsened throughout 2008, along with the economy, something that news professionals echoed.2

Employment Shrinks, Staff Sizes Begin to Fall

Newsroom jobs began slowly disappearing in 2008, and that trend may well accelerate as the economic turmoil takes its toll in 2009.

The survey of 300 news directors in the summer of 2008 found that there was a small net loss (1.5%) of newsgathering jobs in the first half of the year.3

Stations in the top 25 markets and those in more mid-sized markets (101 to 150), were hit the hardest, with as many as a third having cut staff.

The survey also found that 29% of stations had already reduced staff in the first half of 2008. About half of stations had held steady, 49%, and 22% had increased staff.
At the time of this survey, most of those news directors expected things not to get too much worse. Fully seven in ten said they anticipated their news staffs would remain the same over the following few months. And twice as many news directors (18%) expected to expand their staffs in the coming months of 2008 as thought they would have to cut positions (9%).

But all that optimism was certainly buffeted, if not erased, when the economic crisis gained momentum in the fall.

How much effect did the economic crisis have across newsrooms late in the year? There were some major examples of cuts, including stations firing high-priced, long-time anchors. Papper, a consultant to this report, told PEJ that in the final months of 2008 stations made cuts across all departments, including news.

While some stations cut back on news programming toward the end of 2008, most made more use of part-time staffers and maintained the amount news on their stations.

Papper suggested, however, that with newsrooms already stretched thin, many stations would have to reduce the amount of news programming if the industry experiences further significant cutbacks in 2009.

Even as early as late 2007, when the last full RTNDA survey was conducted, there were signs of cost cutting. Stations, for instance, had increased their reliance on part-time staff.4 The median number of part-time staff doubled in 2007 compared with 2006 (to six).

The staffing in local television newsrooms was not large to begin with. For 2007, in the biggest markets, those 1 to 25, the median newsroom size in the latest survey available was 58. The next biggest market (25 to 50) was 56. And markets 100 and below averaged 28 people.5

Cuts were evident in the median size of newsrooms. After hitting an all-time high of 30 in 2006, median employment dropped by 2 the next year. What growth there was tended to happen at stations in the biggest markets (1 to 50). Reductions were experienced in markets 51 to 150 and there was no change at stations in the smallest markets (151 and up).6 Stations affiliated with the four big networks mostly held steady. They averaged 39.3 full-time staffers vs. 38.3 in 2006. But the median showed a two-person decrease from 2006 figures to 32 employees.

Newsroom staffs at independent stations are generally smaller than those at affiliates. And in 2007, staff sizes at the nonaffiliated seemed to fall more than at affiliates.7

Local TV Newsroom Staff Levels
1988-2007
Design Your Own Chart

Source: RTNDA/Hofstra University Surveys
Based on survey responses of news directors

Salaries Grow for On-Air Staff, Managers, Flatten for Others

If budgets were flat, one element on the balance sheet that was growing at least for some people in late 2007 was salaries.

According to the Papper survey, salaries for local television news professionals rose after barely budging in 2006. The increase averaged 5.1%in 2007.

The increases, however, were not spread around. The increase was mostly at stations in the top 25 markets. For all other markets, pay increases failed to rise above the 4.1% inflation rate for 2007.

Within the newsroom, the news director was best compensated. The median salary of a news director was $80,000, an increase of more than 7% increase over the previous year’s $74,000.

News directors have had similar increases in each the last 10 years. Salaries increased 51% between 1998 and 2007.

The next most highly paid employees were assistant news directors ($68,800) and managing editors ($56,000). Assistant news directors had a slight increase in median salary from the year before, when it was $63,000, but managing editors had a slight decrease from 2006, when the median salary was $58,000.

Salaries for these jobs have risen 29% on average since 1998.

Salaries over Time
Median Salaries, 2006-2007
Design Your Own Chart

Source: RTNDA/Hofstra University Surveys
Based on survey responses of news directors

On-air positions (news anchors, sports anchors and weathercasters), taken together, have had similar increases between 1998 and 2007, up 52%.

But these salary increases for the anchors and other talent also grew much faster than those for behind-the-scenes employees such as graphics specialists, executive producers, managing editors and photographers.

Shedding High-Priced, Experienced Anchors

As the economy worsened in 2008, however, a growing number of stations appeared to be addressing the issue of salary increases with a new trend — shedding some of the high-priced anchors once seen as the key to a local station’s brand and its place in the market.

Anchors in Boston, Houston, Denver and Fresno, Calif., lost their jobs in 2008.8 Staffing cuts for other positions were made at stations throughout the country.

Al Primo, a television news consultant, told the New York Times in November that anchors’ salaries, which reach seven figures at some stations in the biggest markets, seemed “out of sync with the reality” of budgets at stations.9 Papper, however, argued that letting go longtime anchors is not a broad trend and is mostly determined by ratings and the anchor’s value to a station. “Higher-priced talent at nonmarket leaders is certainly in danger,” he told PEJ. “But it’s always been about [an anchor’s] contribution, what you bring to the table.”

What impact this will have on stations remains to be seen and could bear some resemblance to a similar knowledge drain occurring in newspapers. (See Newspapers News Investment.)
Press reports in November and December of 2008 suggested that stations across the U.S. were making sizable cuts to their staffs, including traditionally more expensive on-air talent.

Some of the most high-profile job cuts were made at WNBC, New York, four on-air reporters were let go in December; and at KNSD, the San Diego NBC affiliate, where 24 newsroom staffers lost their jobs. Also in December, KSTP, the Twin Cities’ ABC affiliate, dismissed 18 in December. And KJZZ, an independent, Salt Lake City station, dropped 24 news employees.

John Beard, an anchor at KTTV, the Fox affiliate in Los Angeles, who was let go by the station in December 2007, argued that the loss of these veteran anchors will weaken the journalism these stations produce because these people were the institutional memory of the stations who knew the community best. “Basically, you replace someone who knows City Hall with someone who can’t find it,” he told the New York Times in November 2008.10

Whether that is true may depend on the anchors and the degree to which they functioned as editors at their stations or just readers of the teleprompter.
Less visible staff reductions — those of reporters or production staff — may have an even bigger impact on newsgathering. “The loss of higher-paid, experienced reporters is more likely to negatively affect coverage than the loss of an anchor who has probably spent little time reporting for a while,” Papper said.

Uncertain Future for Network-Affiliate Model

Staff reductions at local television stations come at a time when the networks most stations are affiliated with — ABC, CBS and NBC — are sending signals of a coming shake-up in the network-affiliate model.

These include changes in financial arrangements between networks and their affiliates and a reduction in the numbers of hours of national programming from networks. And at least one network (CBS) envisions distributing its programs directly through cable and satellite systems within the next decade — thus circumventing or cutting ties completely with affiliates.

Reverse Compensation

Though the financial arrangement between networks and their local stations varies with each contract, most affiliates are paid to broadcast network shows.

The amount they pay is based on the station’s strength in its market and how important the market is to the network.11

This has been an important source of income for local broadcasters. But that seems to be changing.

Fox was the first to turn that system upside-down. A decade ago it required affiliates to pay the network for programming.

In 2008, the first of the Big Three networks, NBC, followed suit. In July, the network began to demand compensation for programming from affiliates renewing contracts.
Specifically, CBS is seeking to get a portion of the money affiliates receive from cable operators, who are required to pay local television stations to transmit their station signal. The network believes it is entitled to a stake of these revenues — called retransmission fees — since it provides local stations with national programming like NFL games which can attract large audiences.12

Analysts predicted the other networks would emulate NBC and Fox in coming years. CBS had already been reducing the amount of money paid to local stations.13

The change hurts small-market stations disproportionately. Generally, stations in markets with more viewers are more important to the networks, and as a result have more leverage to negotiate whether or how much is paid to a network.

Should the reverse-compensation model become the norm, many small-market stations fear they will have to cut back on local programming, including news, to make up for the higher costs.

Programming and Distribution

There were also signs during the year that the traditional relationship between networks and their affiliates could be nearing an end.

Leslie Moonves, the CBS CEO, told reporters at a December 2008 meeting of network executives and advertisers that within 10 years, CBS may no longer have traditional affiliated television stations, but might offer its programming directly to cable and satellite providers.14

Doing that would give the networks revenues from subscriber fees, which tend to be more consistent than local advertising.15

The NBC Universal CEO, Jeffrey Zucker, announced at the meeting that the NBC network would likely cut back the number of hours it programs for entertainment shows, like 30 Rock, The Office and Law and Order. Next fall, NBC will start Jay Leno’s new program at 10 p.m. on weekdays, effectively shortening the prime-time window for scripted programming to two hours a night on those days.

The Big Three networks — that is, ABC, NBC and CBS — program 22 hours a week over dseven days, but they do not offer original programming on Saturday. Only CBS runs all-original scripted programming on Friday in prime time. Fox programs 15 hours a week over seven days. CW and MyNetworkTV do less and program only six nights a week.16

Changes — or an end — to the network-affiliate model would significantly impact the local television industry. While a reduction in the amount of programming from networks would give local stations more opportunities to sell ads, affiliates often rely on lead-ins from the networks’ entertainment programming to attract viewers to late news broadcasts.

An end to the network-affiliate model would have more dire consequences for affiliates. With less or no national programming from the networks, stations would likely be at a disadvantage in negotiating fees for retransmission of their programming on cable and satellite systems.

As 2009 began, the traditional network-affiliate model remained intact but unsteady. The changes foreshadowed in 2008 may prompt stations to expand beyond traditional local programming (mostly news) into more varied content as a protection against audience erosion.

Most network-affiliate contracts don’t expire until 2012 or 2013, which suggests any fundamental changes to the affiliate model won’t happen quickly.17

But some stations are preparing for what could be the inevitable scenario. Lisa Howfield, the general manager of KVBC in Las Vegas told the Wall Street Journal in February 2009 that her station is going about business “like there’s no tomorrow.” This includes cutting costs — through staff reductions, consolidation and putting off investments in equipment — drumming up new advertising business, and generally, learning to survive on much lower revenues.18

Amount of News on Local TV Levels Off

In previous years, station owners have boosted revenues amid declining ratings for existing shows by adding new news programming to their schedule. As a consequence, the amount of news on local stations swelled as stations added morning shows and extended nightly news broadcasts into other hours.
There is evidence, at least in the latest data available, that this trend may be running out of steam.

At the end of 2007, news directors reported airing an average of 4.1 hours of news each weekday, identical to the year before. And a majority said they expected no increase in the amount of news in 2008.

Previously, stations facing declining audiences for nightly newscasts had added early morning and even midday news programming to recapture viewers who were not home when traditional newscasts aired around the dinner hour or late afternoon. That also provided a way to attract new revenue: If you cannot charge more for advertising when the ratings are down, or add more commercials into the programs you have, create new programs instead.

Stations affiliated with one of the four major networks — ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC — were the most likely to add news because they could add local newscasts before or after network ones when audiences are already tuned in. Unaffiliated stations produce an average of one hour less of news per week (3.1 hours) than affiliates.19

Stations continued to tinker with timeslots for news, adjusting the length and start times of newscasts to attract the most viewers in the morning, midday, evening and late night. But aside from simultaneously broadcasting newscasts on new digital channels in 2008, stations did not seem to add many more newscasts.

If the trend toward adding more programs has leveled off, where does that leave stations? There are other revenue opportunities. One of those is that stations can look to add sponsorships of particular program segments such as weather or traffic reports to boost revenues. There are no data on whether this is increasing, but anecdotally industry professionals see it as a trend, especially as stations look to bolster declining revenues from spot advertising.20

Average Hours of News per Weekday
2003-2007
Year
Number of Hours
2007
4.1
2006
4.1
2005
3.8
2004
3.6
2003
3.7

Source: RTNDA/Hofstra University Surveys
Based on survey responses of news directors

New Models for News Gathering

Pooling Coverage

As stations sought to trim their staffs in 2008, two big players in the local television industry were moving toward combining some newsgathering operations at local stations as they headed into an uncertain 2009.

Fox and NBC, the top two owners of local television stations, based on revenues — announced in November they would launch a video news service similar to the newsgathering model of the Associated Press. (The AP is a news agency cooperatively owned by its 1,500 U.S. daily newspaper members that provides news to the print media, radio and television stations.

Under the new Fox-NBC partnership, which was begun in January 2009 in Philadelphia, the owned and operated stations of NBC (WCAU) and Fox (WXTF) dedicated staffers to a joint video service who are dispatched to the scenes of breaking news to shoot video and avoid duplication between the stations.

The stations share the raw video but edit and package their own stories. The individual stations also have the option of sending additional reporters out on stories. The joint service also makes the content available to other local media outlets, including print, radio, Web sites or rival stations, for a fee.21

The service is meant to allow the individual stations to focus their resources on signature enterprise reporting. Enterprise stories are normally topical, aimed at contextualizing trends, lifestyle and lessons for audiences, and are less focused on events themselves.

The local media partners intend to bring this news pool model to other markets where NBC and Fox both own and operate stations in 2009.22

It is too early to assess the impact of Fox and NBC’s pool coverage experiment, but it is a model that other local television ownership groups could consider emulating if news budgets continue to dwindle.

Multimedia Journalists

Another cost-conscious newsgathering model grew in prominence in 2008 as technology made it easier for reporters at local television stations to produce their own stories.

The availability and ease of use of inexpensive video cameras, laptop editing applications and the Internet have made broadcast journalists better able to shoot and edit news segments. And for at least one station in Washington, it means the end of the television news crews as industry professionals have known them.
WUSA, owned by the Gannett Company, announced in December 2008 that it would replace its news crews with single all-in-one reporter/editor/producers known as a multimedia journalists in 2009.23

The streamlined approach to television coverage combines a range of news producing functions normally done by at least four separate staffers – camera operator, correspondent, news producer and editor.

Previously, labor agreements between unions and television stations divided responsibilities among the newsroom’s reporters and camera and production staffers.24 Two unions, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which represents on-air reporters, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents production employees, reached agreement with WUSA on new contracts that paved the way for the staffing changes in December 2008.25 The station was the first major-market affiliate to completely replace its news crews with single-person crews.

But the one-person newsgathering model has been used more often by stations in small markets with less financial resources. Mike Devlin, the president and general manager at WFAA in Dallas-Fort Worth, told PEJ in January that reporters at some small-market stations have long reported, shot and edited their own stories.26

The single-person operations also have been used by some network and cable news operations but have not entirely replaced reporting teams as it has at WUSA.
Earlier in 2008, CNN deployed one-person “all-platform journalists” in ten cities, (See Cable TV News Investment) while the newspaper industry has begun deploying multimedia  “mobile journalists” to report and write stories, and capture accompanying photographs and video, all of which are uploaded to the Web. (See Newspapers News Investment.)

Even more than pooling video coverage among television stations, the multimedia journalist newsgathering model has caused concerns about quality among veteran television news reporters.

Bill Lord, the news director at WJLA, the Washington ABC affiliate and a WUSA competitor, said television reporters were not equipped to do all elements of news production equally well. He told the Washington Post in December, “If you’re forcing everyone to do things against their skill levels and desire, your product suffers.”27

Still, with fewer dollars to pay newsroom employees at local stations, many are looking for ways to simply produce more video with fewer people.

Sharing Newscasts

Another trend that appears to be slowing is the practice of a station sharing stories or even whole newscasts with other television news operations.

In recent years it had become common for stations to sell video or even packaged stories as a way to make money. Sometimes the sharing is done with stations in other markets or with competitors that air in the same market at different times.

For stations with limited newsgathering resources, getting content from a competitor could be the most cost-effective way to produce stories it could not otherwise report. Often they customize the story by having their own staff provide the lead-in or voice-over to the video.

The data from Robert Papper of Hofstra University offers evidence that this may be declining, perhaps as a cost-saving measure by stations unwilling to make the purchases. In late 2007, 24% of stations got programming segments from other stations that originated news. That compared with more than a third, or 37%, in 2006.

News for Other Platforms

Providing news to other local broadcasters is just one way that television stations share their content.

Local television stations routinely provide content to other platforms, notably for their own or others’ Web sites, local radio stations and cable news channels.

In 2007, fewer stations reported sharing content with local radio stations (39%), a 10- percentage point decrease from 2006.

About the same number of stations reported sharing content with cable channels in 2007 (16%) as they did in 2006 (15%). Non-affiliated stations are beginning to share content with cable channels at a higher rate. In 2007, 15% of news directors at these stations reported sharing content with cable channels. In 2006, none reported sharing content with cable channels.

Other Outlets Local TV News Stations Serve, 2007
Design Your Own Chart

Source: RTNDA/Hofstra University Surveys
Based on survey responses of news directors

Fully 81% of stations in 2007, the most recent year for which survey data are available, reported posting their television content online, on their own or other Web sites, the same number as the year before.

Footnotes

1. The survey was conducted among 1,647 operating nonsatellite television stations in the last quarter of 2007. A shorter supplementary survey was conducted in July and August of 2008 among 300 stations. Robert Papper, “News, Staffing & Profitability,” RTNDA Communicator, October 2008, p.22. A total of 774 stations originated local news as of October 2008.

2. Robert Papper, interview with PEJ, October 16, 2008

3. Extrapolating his survey data to the entire population of those employees in newsgathering positions at local television stations, Robert Papper said the number of jobs lost in the first half of 2008 totaled about 360.

4. Robert Papper, interview with PEJ, October 16, 2008

5. The average, which Papper considers a statistically less accurate measure of newsroom health than the median, grew slightly, to 37.3 from 35.8 from the year before. That is highest level since RTNDA began surveying news directors. The inclusion of stations in big markets, with much disproportionately larger newsroom staffs than stations in smaller markets, generally skews the average upward.

6. Robert Papper, “The Real Story of TV News Staffing,” unpublished, August 2008

7. The Papper survey found that the average staffing at independent stations decreased 20% in late 2007 to 25.5 full-time staffers, down from 30.5 in 2006. The median measure shows 6.5 fewer staffers at independent stations, down from 28 in 2006. But due to limited sample size, Papper notes that it is wise to be cautious about interpreting too much from sharp one-year changes in the survey data.

8. Brian Stelter, “A Generation of Local TV Anchors Is Signing Off,” New York Times, November 30, 2008

9. Brian Stelter, “A Generation of Local TV Anchors Is Signing Off,” New York Times, November 30, 2008

10. Brian Stelter, “A Generation of Local TV Anchors Is Signing Off,” New York Times, November 30, 2008

11. Michelle Greppi, “NBC Affiliates Prepare to Swallow Bitter Reverse-Compensation Pill,” Broadcasting and Cable, July 13, 2008

12. Sam Schechner and Rebecca Dana, “Local TV Stations Face a Fuzzy Future,” Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2009.

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13. Greppi, Michelle, “NBC Affiliates Prepare to Swallow Bitter Reverse-Compensation Pill,” Broadcasting and Cable, July 13, 2008.

14. David B. Wilkerson, “CBS CEO: Ad rates flat with upfront, down from a year ago,” MarketWatch, December 10, 2008. Online at: http://www.marketwatch.com/News/Story/Story.aspx?guid={BCF393AD-080B-419F-9245-C6A014BE7653}&siteid=yhoof2.

15. Sam Schechner and Rebecca Dana, “Local TV Stations Face a Fuzzy Future,” Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2009.

16. Paul J. Gough,  “NBC might scale back hours, Zucker says,” Hollywood Reporter, December 8, 2008

17. Sam Schechner and Rebecca Dana, “Local TV Stations Face a Fuzzy Future,” Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2009.

18. Sam Schechner and Rebecca Dana, “Local TV Stations Face a Fuzzy Future,” Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2009.

19. RTNDA/Hofstra University News Staffing and Profitability Survey, 2008

20. Robert Papper, interview with PEJ, December 5, 2008 .

21. Michael Malone, “Fox, NBC Try ‘AP’ Approach to Local TV,” Broadcasting & Cable, November 13, 2008

22. Malone, Michael, “Fox, NBC Try ‘AP’ Approach to Local TV,” Broadcasting & Cable, November 13, 2008.

23. Paul Farhi, “WUSA Moves to One-Person News Crews,” Washington Post, December 1 2, 2008.

24. The station’s agreements with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which represents on-air reporters, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, was ratified in December 2008. Paul Farhi, “WUSA Moves to One-Person News Crews,” Washington Post, December 12, 2008.

25. Malone, “Inauguration First Big Test For WUSA One-Man Bands,” Broadcasting & Cable, January 21, 2009. Online at: http://www.broadcastingcable.com/blog/Station_to_Station/10779-Inauguration_First_Big_Test_For_WUSA_One_Man_Bands.php?rssid=20112&q=WUSA

26. Mike Devlin, interview with PEJ, January 13, 2009.

27. Paul Farhi, “WUSA Moves to One-Person News Crews,” Washington Post, December 12, 2008

28. Congress passed legislation to move the digital television transition “hard date” from February 17 to June 12, 2009. About a quarter of all local television stations discontinued analog transmission on February 17, and more are expected to shut off analog signals on March 14 and April 18. These “soft dates” approved by FCC, on which a limited number of stations may be allowed to transition to solely digital transmission.

29. Brian Stelter, “Switch to Digital TV Wins a Delay to June 12,” New York Times, February 4, 2009.

30. John Eggerton, “NTIA: Wait List For DTV Coupons Keeps Growing,” Broadcasting & Cable, January 29, 2009.

31. John Eggerton, “DTV Oversight Hearing On House Docket,” Broadcasting & Cable, February 24, 2009.

32. “Airtime: The DTV Transition Brings Tidal Wave of Change,” Broadcasting & Cable, February 21, 2009.

33. Deborah Potter, interview with PEJ, October 31, 2008

34. Ted Hearn, “Martin Forced to Pull LPTV Must-Carry Plan,” Multi-Channel News, October 20, 2008