The departure last week of Marianne Banister from WBAL-TV after 15 years of co-anchoring a team that always finished first or second in its time period raised big questions about the changing face of television news in Baltimore.
In the past year and half, several longtime anchors have signed off the local airwaves, including Sally Thorner at WJZ and Mary Beth Marsden at WMAR.
By longtime, we're talking 15 years or more of coming into Baltimore homes every night with the local news. And some of those who have left the airwaves have some very definite opinions about the changes taking place.
Banister spoke candidly with The Baltimore Sun about her departure, saying it was not her idea.
"I want to make this clear: This is not my choice," she said. "I'm not retiring. I'm not leaving to 'spend more time with my family.'"
According to what the 51-year-old Banister says she was told, her non-renewal was strictly a matter of dollars and cents.
"The former general manager here, Jordan Wertlieb, made this decision a few months before his move to the New York offices [of station owner Hearst], and he told me it was purely an economic decision," she said. "They had to cut a position. Basically, my contract was the one that came up, so, in essence, I drew the short straw. … My position has fallen victim to the economy."
But in an economy where many older workers seem to be drawing lots of short straws these days, and a society where women have traditionally drawn more of them than men, some readers clearly wanted issues of gender and age to be explored further.
"I smell a rat," one reader said in a comment on my Z on TV blog in response to my first report of Banister's situation. "Unfortunately, TV news women are cast away when they age, unlike the men. … In a year or so, when everyone has forgotten Marianne, they will hire some pretty young thing regardless of whether or not she can utter two sentences in standard English. Everyone knows. Nobody says it."
Another wrote, "Discrimination against women employed in television media is well-documented, and I hope that this isn't the case regarding Marianne. … I often wonder why media critics still shy away from examining hiring and contract differences with female anchors, newsreaders, employees. Perhaps because many media critics still fit the middle-aged male demographic, and they see women on air which automatically means there are no problems, right?"
The situation is not nearly as cut and dried as such comments might suggest, according to analysts and some of the anchorwomen who have lived the reality of being female and middle-age in a Baltimore TV newsroom during these turbulent media times. All of them stressed the ways in which massive changes in technology, audience lifestyle and economics challenge conventional beliefs about the way media operate. Gender and age matter, but in the end, not as much as money, they say. And money matters more than ever.
"It's a sign of the times: You have a target on your back if you have a big salary these days," says Thorner, who left WJZ in 2009 at what she and station general manager Jay Newman characterize as her own choosing, stressing that she was in the middle of a long-term contract when she resigned.
"I don't think it's happening more to women," Thorner adds. "Marianne Banister looks great. Mary Beth Marsden looks great. … Look, I have my antennae up for that [gender discrimination], and I have to say I don't think that's what's going on. … No, the answer is no — no, no, no, no, no. It's budgets. It's dollars and cents."
Marsden, who recently launched a website, reallookautism.com, which produces solution-based videos of children on the autism spectrum, also sees Banister as a victim of larger structural and economic change throughout the industry. But she does believe that gender and age play a secondary role.
"The whole industry is changing, and everyone from primary anchors to reporters realizes this, and I don't think anyone will be blind-sided in this day and age when their contract is not renewed," says Marsden, who characterized her departure from WMAR in 2009 as a "mutual decision."
"This [Banister's non-renewal] is just symptomatic of what's happening industrywide," she adds. "Do I believe that a woman was terminated because she's a woman? No. I haven't found that to be prevalent. But I do believe that a forty-something or fifty-something woman probably has a harder time getting rehired than a forty-something or fifty-something man. I think it's harder for her to find that second chapter on TV."
Stressing that she is talking about her sense of the industry in general, not commenting on her situation, Banister says, "Overall, if you just look at the numbers, statistically, yeah, it [not getting renewed] happens more often to women."
But, she adds, "the days of when it was a very young woman and a more mature man [paired as co-anchors], I think that has gone away. And I think we have made great inroads with that. If you just look across the board, nationally, you have Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric — all women who are 40-plus or 50-plus. So there seems to be a staying power that wasn't there even 10 years ago."
As the different circumstances of the departures of these three former Baltimore newscasters demonstrate, generalizations about middle-aged anchorwomen are dangerous, according to Bob Papper, Hofstra University professor of journalism and author of the definitive annual study of local TV news for the Radio, Television Digital News Association.
Papper agrees with Thorner's assessment that a high salary puts a target on a newsroom employee's back regardless of gender, but says that different stations handle the industrywide imperative of "paring back expenses" differently. A first-place station with more resources might offer a pay cut to an anchorperson with the option of staying on as part of a co-anchor team, while a struggling station might just get rid of him or her altogether.
"You've seen a number of anchor-desk retirements in recent years, and some of them are more voluntary than others," he says. "Some retired rather than taking a cut in pay. In some cases, some anchors were not offered an option."
Papper says research does not show middle-aged female anchors being downsized more often than men, but also acknowledges that in a culture that clearly has different standards of age and beauty for women and men, cosmetic factors do play a role.
"The fact is, you can find market after market where you have women who have aged into their 60s [at the anchor desk] and have done just fine," he says. "On the other hand, it's television, so it's a visual medium and it's about popularity."
The thinking here is that if viewers are reacting more favorably to younger women in station focus groups and other forms of research, it can make a difference in who gets fired and who doesn't.
But in the end, Papper says, "it's about the money."
Stations have found they can do just as well in the ratings with one anchor as they have done for decades with two. And dropping an anchor who is making $200,000 to $250,000, as a veteran anchor in Baltimore can do, is an instant and significant savings.
"That's four to seven positions or more," Papper says of the $250,000 figure. "And as new media become more and more important — and those are young people being hired in many cases right out of school — that's a whole bunch of positions you can fund by cutting just one veteran anchor who comes up for renewal."
Papper says viewers here can expect more longtime favorites to disappear, but the practice of downsizing the anchor desk is hardly limited to Baltimore.
"We're seeing more and more solo anchoring," he says. "One of the models may be WPVI, the ABC station in Philadelphia. It is very much the dominant station and has been solo anchor at 6 and 11 for at least a year or two. It was solo anchor at 11 p.m. for years, but I was astonished to see it go solo at 6 and 11 — and they are still on top. So the message is very clear."
At WBAL, Rod Daniels is now solo anchor at 11, and there is no search to replace Banister, according to Dan Joerres, station general manager.
"It's unfortunate," Thorner says. "But it will never go back. When they can make do with one less anchor's salary, do you think it's going to suddenly go back if TV turns more profitable? No way."
Recent tweets from Baltimore Sun media and television critic David Zurawik: