Angular, bespectacled feature reporter Norm Uhl, 44, familiar to Houston viewers for his "Norm at Work" video columns profiling folks with unusual vocations, picked up the first hints he might be looking for a new job himself late last fall. KHOU Channel 11 station manager Peter Diaz began dropping hints at staff meetings about "going after a younger demographic," and a supervisor suggested Norm might not be able to keep up with younger colleagues on breaking news stories.
"Obviously, I proved I could keep up with the daily grind," says Uhl of the period after he was taken off features and assigned hard news. "In my last month, I had four or five exclusives they thought were good enough to lead with."
Forty-eight-year-old space-beat veteran John Getter, who along with a formidable store of experience had put on a few pounds in recent years, detected the message via a drumbeat of comments from senior station managers to the effect that "you old people can't change, can't cut it, can't keep up." Never mind that Getter's reports were leads nearly every day of his last week at the station in December.
Both Getter's and Uhl's contracts were not renewed by the station in December. Getter had spent 16 years at KHOU -- in all, he'd had a 31-year TV career that began as a teenager in Dayton, Ohio. Uhl was nearing his 13th anniversary at KHOU after coming to Houston from WAVE-TV in Louisville, Kentucky. They and a half-dozen other KHOU staffers over 40 forced out of their jobs have taken their beef to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Houston.
The EEOC has opened an investigation into hiring and firing practices at the self-dubbed Spirit of Texas. A similar probe at KPRC Channel 2 has been ongoing for more than a year. KHOU's Diaz declined to comment on what an intermediary termed "personnel matters." KPRC general manager Steve Wasserman acknowledged that EEOC lawyers had queried station management about age discrimination in the news department, but said he knew of no complaints filed with the federal agency by former staffers.
The latest television staff upheavals demonstrate a hard fact of media life: For on-air television personalities, the adjective "old" applies to people several decades sooner than it does in other employment sectors. Wrinkles and paunches may have nothing to do with intellect or delivery, but in the rapidly dumbing-down world of local TV news, they're a career killer. Accomplishments like the two prestigious statewide environmental awards Uhl won for KHOU in his final year, or the unparalleled expertise on the NASA beat that Getter had accumulated, proved no guarantee of job security.
With Diaz's arrival last year, a new age dawned at Channel 11, and Getter and Uhl claim it's a world designed strictly for the under-40 set. If so, it's a distinct change of direction for the Belo-owned station located on Allen Parkway just west of downtown.
For most of the '90s, under news director Dave Goldberg, KHOU prided itself on being the thinking person's television news alternative in Houston, in contrast to Disney-owned KTRK Channel 13's slightly daft stable of personalities like consumer crusader Marvin Zindler and weatherman Ed Brandon.
Out the Southwest Freeway, the Hobby family had peddled KPRC Channel 2 to the Newsweek television empire. New station manager Steve Wasserman presided over a radical makeover of perhaps the most tradition-bound local news outlet, once epitomized by Ray Miller, Ron Stone and Jack Cato, into the hyperactive News Buzz format that media doctors routinely prescribe for patients suffering from attention deficit disorders.
Not coincidentally, most of the veteran KPRC staff was forced out and replaced with newcomers like suicide anchor Rob Johnson, who specializes in risking his neck in stunt stories. Or rising anchor and former traffic reporter Dominique Sachse, whose gaffes, including cheerily introducing a black weatherwoman as "our resident monkey," dwarf her news expertise.
After challenging Channel 13 for the top spot in the market several years ago, KHOU sagged back into a comfortable number two in the market. Wasserman's KPRC operation has yet to break into the top tier, in terms of ratings, but Getter claims it had a noticeable impact on Channel 11's management after Peter Diaz took over as general manager.
"Steve Wasserman has done a great psych job on his competitors," observes Getter. "He has not been successful yet, from the standpoint that they are still third and fourth and sometimes fifth in the ratings.... Yet he has been successful in getting his competing general managers to be very concerned about him, and begin to follow his lead, even though he's behind them."
Getter recalls a bemused friend at Channel 13 puzzling over Wasserman's influence. "Let me understand this," said the newswoman. "Channel 11 is a strong number two, Channel 2 is a number three and Channel 11 wants to be more like Channel 2? That's just great!"
Getter also is struck by the fact that television news has always resisted diversification, first with women and then blacks. He sees the current drive to dump older employees in favor of young, pretty faces as just the latest manifestation of discrimination.
"Every time the business as a whole has taken a position like this, it's been proved absolutely wrong," says Getter. "Because the diversification of the work force is strong, good marketing. It helps grow the audience." Getter cites the predominance of Channel 13 as evidence that diversity of all kinds strengthens a news operation.
"Who's number one?" he asks. "It's the station with a 50-plus-year-old anchor man [Dave Ward], a 40-plus-year-old anchorwoman [Shara Fryer], a 50-plus-year-old weatherman [Ed Brandon] and a 76-year-old feature reporter [Zindler]. And they are backed up by reporters who appear to range in age from about 28 to 62."
Citing office policy, Houston EEOC Director Joan Ehrlich would neither confirm nor deny that an age-discrimination investigation of KHOU and KPRC is under way. EEOC involvement in such cases in the media is very rare, comments Ehrlich, who recalls only one other case, where a male news anchor at KGO-TV in San Francisco claimed age discrimination and sued with EEOC assistance, winning a quarter-million-dollar judgment last year.
Ehrlich says she's privately counseled many on-air Houston television personalities who lost their jobs due to suspected sex or age discrimination. All of them eventually decided not to sue their former employers.
"These are very high-profile people who will face subtle or not so subtle retaliation if they file," explains Ehrlich. "People choose not to file, and go on and do something else, because otherwise their name is mud in the business."
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Neither Uhl nor Getter holds much hope of rejoining The Spirit of Texas staff. Uhl is considering working as a media representative for a statewide candidate in next fall's campaign, while Getter is pursuing freelance television-production projects.
Uhl hopes his complaint against KHOU plays a part in staving off the trend to replace veteran television journalists, with accumulated experience and seniority, with younger reporters paid far below market rates.
Getter looks to the EEOC investigation and possible future lawsuit for a fair and reasonable settlement to meet the needs of his family, "those that I thought would be met by a long and successful career at KHOU. And at the same time, perhaps help them learn as a company that discrimination, no matter what kind it is, stinks."
Contact Tim Fleck by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.