Hunting the Talking Heads

In recent months, TV stations and networks have been laying off and buying out correspondents, producers, editors and anchors at a dizzying rate. During the second week in December, CNN let go Henry Mauldin, the cable news network’s talent-development chief—a move that seemed to be a grim omen for that particular caste of TV executives who make their living scouting new talent. After all, who needs headhunters if you’re cutting back your head count? As the New York Post noted the other day, “With the TV industry doing more firing than hiring, the networks’ in-house talent hunters have had nothing to do.”

Well, not exactly.

In recent days, The Observer spoke with a number of current and former talent-development executives in New York, all of whom agreed that far from having nothing to do, the current climate makes finding, developing and utilizing on- and off-air employees that much more intense and the stakes that much higher.

“In these times, it’s more important than ever,” said Elena Nachmanoff, the vice president of talent development for NBC News (she also oversees talent at MSNBC and CNBC). “There are fewer resources, and we want to make sure we have the best people, and they are getting the best training and development in what they’re doing.”

Part of the job description for talent-development executives is sorting through unsolicited highlight tapes they receive each week from correspondents and anchors around the country. These days, that pile of tapes isn’t getting any smaller.

“I’m as busy as I’ve ever been,” said Barbara Fedida, vice president, talent and development, for CBS News. “I get dozens of tapes a week from people even when we don’t have a quote-unquote opening. You always want to keep an eye on who is out there.”

One talent-development executive told The Observer that over the past six months, there had been an uptick in tapes sent by unemployed local newsmen and women—fueled, in part, by cutbacks at local stations. 

“We do feel a compelling need to look at a lot of the stuff that comes in,” the executive said. “You never know when that gem is going to be in the pile.”

Network talent executives are also charged with keeping detailed, up-to-date tabs on all the personnel changes taking place at their competitors’ newsrooms—no small task given the current level of upheaval in the media business.

“There’s a lot of churn right now,” said one talent development executive. “But you always keep an eye out for who is moving around. You always have a targeted list of people that you want to hire. If any of those people happen to be on the market, you pay attention. It’s difficult right this minute to bring anyone in. But if you have a need, you have a need.”

At the same time, for most in-house TV headhunters, the job of developing talent extends well beyond the recruiting phase. No matter what the business climate on the outside, talent developers continue to work with the people they’ve hired to create opportunities, sharpen skills and offer feedback on their work.

“The feedback aspect of it is something that helps develop people,” said Ms. Nachmanoff. “I’m not talking about, ‘Did you like the red dress and the earrings that I wore?’ It’s truly about, ‘Did you come to participate in the right way? Did you share your ideas? Did you participate online? How many rewrites were there on your piece?’”

Once upon a time, back in the golden age of media job security, even the greenest TV talents could ignore the advice of their talent-development managers once they got their foot in the door. These days, with anxiety at every network and at every level, more and more TV newspeople are seeking advice in order to survive.

So given the current gloomy employment environment, can talent-development executives still in good conscience recommend that youngsters go into TV news?

“It’s a wonderful field,” said one executive. “It’s going to be evolving. I do say to people, if you think you’re going to grow up to be a local anchor—have a lot of plans. Don’t set your sights on one thing. There’s just no telling where it’s going. I wouldn’t discourage people to be in this field, I would just advise them to be nimble and flexible.”

“In terms of jobs and futures and how much money you can earn?” added the TV executive. “Who knows?”

fgillette@observer.com

Hunting the Talking Heads