I have to hand it to Media General, the parent company of Augusta’s WJBF-TV, Channel 6. They appear to have pulled off one of the sneakiest media maneuvers ever made in the Augusta market, while making their innocent competitors look like schmucks in the process.
While the evil spirit of Simon Legree may be somewhere laughing down at the complicated, local mess that has been created for some damn fine professional media people, I have to warn the Media General bosses to be careful: God don’t like ugly and karma can be a real bitch.
Of course all this is about Schurz Communications, the parent company of market’s NBC affiliate, WAGT-Channel 26, selling out lock, stock and barrel to Gray Television, which happens to own, among many other stations nationwide, Augusta’s own WRDW-TV Channel 12.
Schurz is getting out of the TV business. In Augusta, they got out of it a long time ago, opting to turn control of Channel 26 over to Media General, via a “lease management agreement.” When Schurz sold out nationwide, there was likely little thought given to the situation in the Augusta market, or the real human beings whose lives were going to be impacted.
Full disclosure here… many of those “impacted lives” belong to people I know and love dearly. NBC26 morning anchor Barclay Bishop has been a guest in my home regularly for many years, and my family has stayed at her family home in Pittsburgh several times. Channel 12’s morning anchor Meredith Anderson has worked closely with me to raise funds for local arts groups over the last four years, and we have more projects planned in the future. Chris Kane (Channel 6), Richard Rogers (Channel 12), Jennie Montgomery (Channel 6), Dana Lynn McIntyre (Channel 12) and Jay Jefferies (Channel 26) are all old friends of long standing, and I know and appreciate their work immensely.
Channel 12’s Operations Manager and News Director Estelle Parsley is one of the best and smartest news executives I ever had the pleasure to work with. There is not a finer human on the planet. Mark Rosen, the news director at Channel 26, may be one of the most popular bosses in the history of local media. The people who have worked for him would slay dragons for that guy. He is loyal to the bone.
So with all these fantastic people, and amazing journalists, why is there so much mystery surrounding how and why the 26 crew disappeared a few weeks ago when the Gray acquisition was finalized, and why has an incredibly misleading narrative been allowed to stand?
Two words: pending litigation.
Let me take you to the Facebook statement of former Augusta Chamber of Commerce President Ed Presnell the day we all tuned in to see Channel 26’s morning news team replaced with a Channel 12 news simulcast:
“In case you haven’t noticed, WAGT doesn’t feature the normal team… the acquisition/takeover by CH 12 parent company has now become reality. Opinions are a freedom we enjoy as Americans and right now my opinion of this talent change is a huge mistake!!! It is an unprecedented abomination of TV warfare in the Augusta market! The employee reference in their FB statement is an insult to the integrity of many people whose professional careers and livelihoods have been abruptly interrupted by this transaction!!! To operate two major networks via simulcast is no different than another network in this market being produced out of Savannah. Of course, this is business and it’s their bat and their ball. However, unless I’m missing something, it is bush league baseball in a major league city…..Ch 12, if your phone isn’t ringing, it’s me. Quasi Channel 26, if your phone isn’t ringing, refer to the Ch 12 comment. I know my opinion doesn’t matter, but it’s my opinion that you have not only crushed the careers of very fine people, but you are likewise depriving Augusta the choice to view a more appealing morning show……thanks, but no thanks! I hope you find a way to reverse the direction you have taken by unprofessionally hijacking our freedom of choice with this morning show action via the rumor mill. CHANNEL 6, GOOD MORNING AUGUSTA!!!!!!!!”
Not to pick on Ed, but as a former C of C president, his opinions and voice carry a lot of weight. That is one of many reasons the truth needs to be known sooner rather than later. Sadly, in Ed’s defense of his good friends at 26, he was missing a whole bunch of the story, as were most of us. Before both sides lawyered up, I was able to get the straight scoop not only on the air from Gray’s corporate attorney, but also background from a former 26 employee who wanted me to understand the “plan.”
Media General had four more years left on their 10-year agreement to “lease and operate” Channel 26. Local news is an integral part of that operation, because without it, the station would likely lose its affiliation with NBC. The major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox) pretty much demand that their affiliates air independent, original newscasts. That demand was one of the main reasons 26 started a news department many years ago after decades of resistance. Same for Channel 54, our Fox affiliate.
Media General made a brilliant and calculating move as the original Schurz employees saw their contracts expire during the six years they have been under MG control. The 26 veterans (and new hires) were all transitioned to MG contracts. That means if the station was sold, it would have to be sold minus every single name and face associated with the 26 News “brand.”
If you remember the old TV show “Green Acres,” it is a move that was straight out of Mr. Haney’s playbook. The vagabond sales weasel once sold Mr. Douglas a “car,” then asked him if he would be interested in perhaps buying the “engine” to go with it.
Not to be deterred, when Gray found out that they had been sold an Augusta TV station, but with none of the personalities who were connected with it attached, they set out to rectify the situation. Thus began weeks and months of letters and calls to MG home office personnel that went unanswered. MG big wigs had no intention of playing this situation to the benefit of the employees, just to the bottom line. Gray’s people knew that if they attempted to contact MG personnel who were under contract (within the same market), they would be opening themselves up to massive lawsuits and untold legal sanctions.
Gray would have loved to have been able to “throw the switch” and have you see the same faces you know and love, giving you the Channel 26 news, morning, nights and weekends. Certainly in the immediate future. But Media General’s management wanted no part of that. They preferred putting their Augusta competitor (Channel 12) in the awkward position of owning a new plane with no pilots, and with as little prior notice, as to their dilemma, as possible.
And what chaos and tumult ensued! Almost immediately viewers were told to contact the FCC and complain (which is one of the most ridiculous suggestions/ideas ever), and the sad faces of Barclay, Jay, Paige Tucker, etc., etc., were paraded around to look like forgotten refugees in a CARE commercial, with “In the Arms of an Angel” playing in the background.
Channel 12 and Gray were painted as the “evil overseers” (see Ed’s letter) and 26 staffers were innocent victims of all this corporate greed.
MG smelled the blood in the water and they were not about to miss an opportunity to make their competition look bad. Sadly, the “huge bag of crap” they tossed at the general public was accepted as gospel by many of the viewers who loved their 26 people.
Well, I am here to tell you to wipe the poop off your glasses and see the light. Media General has all those beloved 26ers under contract, and can release them from their non-compete clauses with the stroke of a pen, if they care to do it. Of course, if they do, then they may have to explain what took them so long.
I understand that new legal challenges are playing out in court, but I needed to state for the record that MG saw this thing coming a mile away, and played the loyal viewers of Channel 26 like chumps at a cheap carnival. Their beef should be with Schurz, not with Gray. But then, there is no one standing around from Schurz that can be made to look like the bad guy who is keeping those 26 staffers away from their appointed duties.
Brilliant and sneaky business move, Media General, but boy are you guys asking for some bad karma to fly right up your fanny and kick it.
That is a special I would love to see televised.