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In the Face of Mandatory Furloughs, Savannah’s WSAV-TV’s Team Has Pulled Together

By Lou Phelps
SBJ Staff

Sept 26, 2011 – On June 23, with only one hour’s advance notice from her corporate headquarters, Deb Thompson, general manager of WSAV-TV, Savannah’s NBC affiliate, learned that all of her employees would be asked to take 15 days unpaid furlough leave before the end of the calendar year to help her company cut its operating expenses.

WSAV-TV, the number two ranked TV station in the Savannah/Hilton Head Island market, is owned by Media General, headquartered in Richmond, VA.  The diverse media company owns both television stations and newspapers around the U.S., and like many of their counterparts with similar holdings, total revenues for January through June were down 6.6%, particularly in the newspaper division. 

Media General reported a $41 million after-tax loss for the first two quarters of 2011, though the figure does not provide an accurate picture of operations.  Through June, the company made a $2.5 million profit, even in a faltering economy.  But Media General had to pay $33 million in borrowing costs – interest expense – on debt which is dragging down the bottom line.  

Earlier in the year, all operations and corporate departments reduced discretionary spending, But to cut costs in the second half of the year, the company’s leadership decided to use the furlough approach to try to preserve jobs, asking all divisions to share equally in the pain.

That was a hard for some of Thompson’s staff to accept at first, because the TV division is doing fairly well – far better than the newspaper division - and WSAV is one of the best performing stations in the television division.

Writing to his company’s employees, Media General’s CEO Marshall Morton was upfront about the situation in a memo on June 23 announcing the required furloughs. “The furlough program will cause financial disruption for employees and scheduling challenges for our operations,”… “It’s little comfort that we are not alone. Other media companies have implemented layoffs and furlough programs this year. In addition to the impact of the weak economy, it’s a sign that traditional media business models continue to be in transition.”

But quickly, Thompson was amazed at the team spirit and camaraderie she began to see when even the ‘talent’ who are under contracts and not covered by the furloughs, volunteered to take unpaid time off to help the company. “Our team really pulled together,” she says, “and tried to find a positive way to respond.”    

All WSAV employees were required to take 15 days of unpaid leave out of the remaining 26 weeks in 2011, an 11.6 percent pay cut for the staff during the period.

“I was very touched about how they reacted,” said Thompson who has been with WSAV for seven years, and was named general manager just two years ago after five years as advertising director. “The staff began to quickly come up with ideas and ways to share things with furloughed staff members who had time off, but no money to do anything.” 

One of the staff members created a board where people could bring in and post tickets and coupons to events, or for food, that could be shared with employees during their “fur-cations,” a term the staff came up with, said Thompson. “They came up with their own language.”

Thompson launched a series of lunches on Fridays for employees which they now call “Furlough Fun Days,” to cover that meal, and at which furloughed employees can win prizes secured by the sales staff or contributed by other members of the team.  “They came up with tickets to Disney on Ice, the Sand Gnats – all kinds of tickets – and grocery coupons and unused gift cards.” 

Media General has actually invested in WSAV in recent years.  The station currently has 62 FTE positions, which includes 65 individuals, up from a low point of 50 just a few years ago.  And the station has all new robotic cameras which have improved efficiency and require fewer individuals to operate. But rather than cut those staff positions, the people were cross-trained for other skills. “It made a big difference to the staff that the company took this approach,” Thompson states.

The company also went completely high definition this year, investing in all new production boards, and has announced plans to launch a 5:00 p.m. news broadcast in the Savannah area for which new employees have been hired.

Several years ago, WSAV increased its news coverage in the Lowcountry counties of Beaufort and Jasper which has had a positive impact on ratings, and entered into strategic media partnerships to expand their content and audience reach.  Adventure Radio is a South Carolina partner now, for example.  

The results after three months?  “No one has resigned,” says Thompson, evidence of the team spirit and positive atmosphere. “Each department has worked through how to get the work done,” she explained, and the company continues to look at other content partnership opportunities.

And better things are projected for 2012 for both WSAV and Media General, because it will be  both a Congressional and Presidential election year, and NBC will broadcast the Summer Olympics, all of which are expected to boost revenues significantly.

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