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TV stations share the air in bid to weather economy

WFXT, WBZ agree to pool some resources, including use of helicopter, news footage

By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / May 20, 2009
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WFXT-TV (Channel 25) and WBZ-TV (Channel 4) will soon begin showing some of the same news footage from Boston highways and crime scenes.

That's because both stations have agreed to share a helicopter for their aerial news coverage and plan to begin sharing video for on-the-ground events such as press conferences and graduation ceremonies.

The agreement, disclosed yesterday at morning meetings at both stations, signals a major shift in the highly competitive Boston TV market, the seventh-largest in the country. WBZ and WFXT's aerial alliance will launch on June 1.

As TV stations wrestle with a withering economy and decline in advertising, they are pooling resources to reduce costs. In Philadelphia, Dallas, and Chicago, local stations recently launched similar helicopter partnerships. Fox-owned and operated affiliates in New York, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles are also looking to share a helicopter or camera crews with competing stations

"We are going through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Where we can find the efficiencies, we will take advantage of those efficiencies," said Ed Piette, the president and general manager of WBZ and sister station WSBK-TV (Channel 38.)

Gregg Kelley, WFXT vice president and general manager, said he believes the arrangement will free up his camera crews to pursue other enterprise-driven stories. "Cost management efforts are ongoing at every station, and we're no different," said Kelley.

WFXT and WBZ each lease a helicopter for bird's-eye coverage of morning and afternoon traffic, accidents, and breaking news. Such leases can cost anywhere from $750,000 to $1 million a year, Piette said.

Because WBZ's helicopter lease expires at the end of the month, Piette and Kelley decided to use Fox's "SkyFox" as the shared vehicle. That chopper will be repainted in neutral colors and won't carry any station logo.

In Boston, WCVB-TV (Channel 5) leases its "Live Sky 5" helicopter and shares aerial footage with New England Cable News, which contributes to the costs. The stations share a parent company, the Hearst Corp. WHDH-TV (Channel 7) has its own helicopter and shares its video with WLVI-TV (Channel 56.)

"Sharing this commodity makes a lot of sense," said NECN president and general manager Charles Kravetz, although he cautioned, "Television stations have to be careful to maintain their editorial independence."

Although WBZ and WFXT will have common aerial footage, news directors from each station will be allowed to use the helicopter for exclusive enterprise stories. "It's a resource both stations want to provide," added Kelley, whose helicopter is based at Norwood Memorial Airport.

WFXT's morning traffic reporter, Doug Meehan, will continue to report on New England traffic, but from the station's Dedham studios.

Within weeks, the stations plan to start sharing camera crews on the ground for some public events. "It's for those kinds of situations where you don't need four cameras lined up for the same talking head," said Piette.

In an effort to reduce costs, Chicago's WBBM-TV (Channel 2) began sharing video with three stations last week. Jeff Kiernan, WBBM's news director and vice president and a former WBZ news director, said the arrangement has been working well.

Johnny Diaz can be reached at jodiaz@globe.com.