The job of the modern TV-news anchor may have less to do with TV as information junkies get their fixes and facts from a wider array of media venues.
The days of watching a popular anchor like Dan Rather solely on a broadcast program like venerable “CBS Evening News” are quickly fading. The rise of streaming video has created new opportunities for journalists and the venues they fill with content. With that in mind, Endeavor’s WME talent agency, one of the industry’s largest, is giving new thought to how to serve a wide array of clients that include ABC News’ Robin Roberts, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and “The View” co-host Sunny Hostin.
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“The networks have to go with where their viewers are. Their business model depends on how do we find these people, how do we get to them? And it’s going to call for a lot of creative ways,” says Henry Reisch, a partner and head of WME’s news broadcasting department. In the past, he suggests, networks worried that allowing their news personnel to work for multiple venues would cause confusion. Now, he says, getting information out to digitally savvy consumers hinges on new ideas.
Some of these new business concepts are being built in open view. ABC News last week unveiled a new production unit built around anchor George Stephanopoulos, who has already prepared two different non-fiction projects for Hulu, a Disney sibling. ViacomCBS has set up See It Now Studios, a production unit led by Susan Zirinsky, the former president of CBS News. One of the new operation’s mandates is to develop projects for the company’s Paramount Plus streaming hub. Tucker Carlson is best known for his Fox News Channel primetime show, but he also has another program made specifically for Fox Nation, the company’s streaming-video outlet.
And agents at WME, including partner Sharon Chang, are busy at work developing a new content portfolio at NBCUniversal for MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow, which, depending on the circumstances, curtail her primetime duties for the cable-news outlet. The future of her nightly broadcast hinges on the projects she decides to tackle and the nature of the coming news cycle. Chang says that the anchor’s new assignments are still being worked out, but she indicated Maddow could find a way to balance multiple responsibilities.
“There’s a way to do it,” says Chang. “I use Robin Roberts as a template where she’s on the air every day, but she’s running a production company. You just have a team, and you have to have a staff that you trust.”
Maddow’s new arrangement could spur other high-profile anchors and correspondents to score similar pacts, and WME and counterparts at other talent firms are quickly changing to accommodate those interests.
“Rachel is sui generis, but thankfully we have a lot of sui generis clients,” says Bradley Singer, an agent at WME. “This is where the business is headed. Rachel has such an amazing brand it would be silly for NBC Universal not to expand her offerings across their portfolio.”
As part of its efforts to focus on how the news business is changing, WME has elevated Singer, who works with Tamron Hall, Linsey Davis and Mayim Bialik, among others, to partner. “We really look at our clients as storytellers,” Singer says. “We are looking to represent people who can tell important stories, no matter the medium.”
The allure of conquering new frontiers has already spurred a handful of news veterans to leave solid jobs to try something new. Kasie Hunt, once a Washington correspondent on the rise for NBC News, recently decamped for a significant role at CNN Plus, the WarnerMedia streaming service slated to launch in 2022. Tom Llamas, an ABC News veteran, moved to NBC News to take on an evening program for its streaming outlet, NBC News Now.
Even the networks are shaking up their traditional ways of doing business Fox News Channel has made its primetime shows — the linchpin of the network– available for consumption on Fox Nation — just hours after they debut on cable. MSNBC has begun cobbling together schedules that have some staffers, including Mehdi Hasan and Ayman Mohyeldin, anchor programs on both the network’s weekend schedule and “The Choice” streaming outlet. Linsey Davis, an ABC News anchor represented by WME, leads a weekday streaming program as well as the Sunday broadcast of “World News Tonight.”
What’s the value of anchoring a nightly news program on television when more consumers are opting to learn about the day’s events online? The WME team believes that traditional news programs still dominate coverage of major breaking events, such as presidential elections or national tragedies. But they also feel there are growing opportunities for anchors to reach interested audiences with digital extensions.
“Sure the marketplace may be fracturing, but there are more people and more platforms than ever before,” says Mark McGrath, an agent with WME.
Reisch views current circumstances as a battle for attention, one that anchors with long-standing relationships with the viewing audience are well positioned to win.
“It is diminishing but it is not de minimis,” he says. “There’s a smaller pie [for broadcast and cable news], but it still has significant reach and impact. We’re not ready to throw in the towel. Everyone talks about how do we stop the bleeding? We might need to flip the way we think about this.”
The agents believe some areas should be kept at arm’s length. More advertisers are pushing for unique alliances with news programs, with some marketers even sponsoring individual segments of ABC’s “Good Morning America.” WME feels journalists ought to steer clear of any appearance of endorsing a product. “You can’t have an anchor talking about a product today and tomorrow doing a hard-hitting news story on them,” says McGrath. “There will always be areas that are off limits.”
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