Agency Dealmaking for Journalists Goes Into Overdrive

·8 min read

With the 2022 midterm elections kicking into gear, and what is sure to be a heated presidential election cycle just over the horizon, star journalists are in high demand. But while TV anchors and correspondents have seen their profiles (and compensation) rise for decades, the past few years in particular have turbocharged that shift.

“News talent in the last five years have become stars in their own right,” says UTA co-president Jay Sures, noting his agency’s clients: “The likes of Don Lemon, David Muir, Anderson Cooper, Bret Baier, Jake Tapper, Norah O’Donnell. They are stars. They are walk-down-the-street stars. And as a result of that, they are compensated in a commensurate way with what they bring to their respective employers, which is a real trusted source in news — people enjoy watching them for different reasons.”

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Those high-profile anchors can now reasonably expect deals that total in the eight figures annually, especially if they include other projects like podcasts or development deals. And with a fresh election cycle nearing, these journalism stars are gaming out ways to make sure they are part of the conversation and remain top of mind for news junkies and casual viewers, whether they pay for cable TV or not. It helps that news is some of the only programming that consistently does well on linear television, even as consumer viewing habits (not to mention corporate business models) have shifted toward on-demand streaming.

“There is a reason that ABC’s World News Tonight With David Muir is the most-watched show in TV outside of sports,” says WME partner Bradley Singer. “That says a lot about viewer behavior and the value of television news.”

The crowded media landscape of 2022 looks vastly different from the way it did during the 1980s and early 1990s, when a seat behind a network morning or evening anchor desk was a journalist’s only real hope for a million-dollar payday.

But it was the rise of cable news — notably CNN during the Gulf War and Fox News after 9/11 — that dramatically expanded the landscape for anchors, and for their agents, who cannily recognized that A-list anchors could turn around a news broadcast just as effectively as an A-list star could turn around a fading network series.

It was that media universe that helped turn firms like N.S. Bienstock, led by Richard Leibner and Carole Cooper, into powerhouse agencies in the news and information space. UTA acquired Bienstock in 2014, which, as THR noted at the time, instantly gave the agency “leading market share” in the broadcast news business.

With the rise of streaming video, the emergence of podcasts as a viable business, explosive growth in digital media and, in the words of Sures, an “insatiable desire for fresh content,” the past eight years may have seen as much change in the news business as the previous 80.

“The last several years have shown that the only thing that is constant is change,” says CAA agent Rachel Adler.

So while Edward R. Murrow, Barbara Walters and Dan Rather paved the way for today’s journalists not only in fame but also in fortune, the opportunities today are far greater than they were back then.

“To be a journalist right now, to be a broadcaster right now, does not mean you have to have a broadcast television deal,” Singer says. “It means you can be doing streaming news, you can be doing podcasting. Maybe you are a correspondent at a broadcast network, maybe you’re at cable, maybe you are making things for Netflix.”

Among the superstar journalists and hosts, that increasingly means production deals. Robin Roberts, George Stephanopoulos, Jenna Bush Hager, Rachel Maddow, Sunny Hostin — all have inked deals to produce specials, documentaries, podcasts and other fare for their corporate parent companies.

Maddow, MSNBC’s most-watched host, is transitioning from hosting five nights a week to one night a week so that she can work on outside projects, including a scripted film directed by Ben Stiller based on her book and podcast Bag Man. (WME negotiated the megadeal last year.) “They like it because it is entrepreneurial and it gives them another outlet, but it is also good business,” says Singer. “If you are paying these people a lot of money to be stars inside your corporation, why not have them produce other types of content?”

But the opportunities are wider than that. Consider ABC News business, technology and economics correspondent Rebecca Jarvis: Speaking to an intimate room full of top Disney advertisers April 25, Jarvis recalled a story that stuck with her over the years, ever since she was pitched a profile about an up-and-coming Silicon Valley genius: Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes.

Jarvis never covered that pitch, but years later, the interaction led to her hosting the ABC News-produced, award-winning podcast The Dropout, which in turn was adapted as a limited series for Hulu, with Jarvis as a producer. “She had to fight [skeptics at ABC] to get The Dropout done; it took off like wildfire, and we sold to Fox Searchlight and Hulu in a bidding war,” Sures recalls.

But it also pays to be opportunistic and willing to stray from where the traditional audience may be, betting that there are news consumers who haven’t been exposed to your work.

“There is a real creator’s economy when it comes to the news business,” Adler says.

She cites as an example Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham, who amid the pandemic decided to launch a podcast, Hope, Through History. “He has a ton of 18- to 35-year-olds listening to his podcast,” Adler says, noting that the demo is much younger than news consumers elsewhere. ” ‘Go to where the audience is’ is a pretty good idea in any business.”

And that might explain the push into streaming by any and all news organizations. While some already might be ill-fated (RIP, CNN+), every TV news organization is investing in the space and is betting that, even if streaming doesn’t replace their linear offerings, it at least brings new, younger consumers into their news ecosystem. Look no further than CBS’ O’Donnell, who is hosting a revitalized version of Murrow’s Person to Person for the CBS News streaming service. Or any number of deals that incorporate both streaming and linear TV, such as MSNBC’s recent deal with Biden administration veteran Symone Sanders, who will host shows on Peacock and on MSNBC’s weekend lineup.

With networks looking to fill more hours than ever (consider NBC News Group, which has the network news shows, MSNBC, CNBC, Noticias Telemundo and now streaming services from all their brands), agencies and agents are in position to help news divisions fill those hours with their talent, both established and new.

But, crucially, there aren’t any expectations — at least not yet — that streaming will supplant the network morning shows or cable news primetime in the near or even medium term. “I think streaming is going to play a role in news, but I don’t think it is going to play as big a role as everybody thinks it is going to play,” Sures says, noting the difficulty in producing and disseminating live news programming through streaming platforms.

Still, that doesn’t mean that opportunities are lacking for aspiring A-list journalists. While the “linear” path of starting at a small-market local TV station and moving up and up until you sign a network contract isn’t dead yet, the options are greater than they ever have been. “There are many more avenues for getting to the top, so to speak, and ways to differentiate yourself that didn’t used to be possible and didn’t used to be valuable,” Singer says.

Podcasts, magazines, Substacks, TikTok accounts and YouTube channels are all potential springboards to a network gig, as is experience in other high-profile areas like politics, as in the cases of New York‘s Olivia Nuzzi (CAA) and The New York TimesThe Daily podcast host Michael Barbaro (UTA).

Sures notes that networks are focused on having more diversity among their on-air talent, representing people and parts of the country that in the past might have been excluded or underrepresented. “Not everyone has to be on the East Coast, not everyone has to be in a bureau, not everyone has to be employed by a traditional media company,” Adler says. Still, there are some throughlines.

“[You have to have] onscreen presence, you have to be smart, you have to have a point of view, and people want to watch you,” Sures says. When those talents emerge, whether on a social media app or a South Carolina NBC affiliate’s 11 p.m. newscast, or even offscreen in a subscription newsletter, you can be sure there will be no shortage of agents and agencies looking to land them a show in the ever-expanding universe of TV news.

  - Credit: Stephanopoulos: Noam Galai/Getty Images for The Michael J. Fox Foundation. Wallace: Gary Gershoff/WireImage. King: Paul Morigi/Getty Images for White House Correspondents Insider. Muir: Taylor Hill/FilmMagic. Baier, Raddatz: Paul Morigi/Getty Images for National Geographic. todd: Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic. Roberts: Amy Sussman/Getty Images. l. O’donnell: Cindy Ord/Getty Images. Scarborough: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images. Kotb: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images. Mitchell: Paul Morigi/WireImage. Cooper: Dominik Bindl/Getty Images. Tapper: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for WarnerMedia. N. O’donnell: Theo Wargo/Getty Images. Kilmeade: Noam Galai/Getty Images. Maddow: D Dipasupil/Getty Images for AWXII. Strahan: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images. Davis: Paul Archuleta/Getty Images. Brzezinski: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images
- Credit: Stephanopoulos: Noam Galai/Getty Images for The Michael J. Fox Foundation. Wallace: Gary Gershoff/WireImage. King: Paul Morigi/Getty Images for White House Correspondents Insider. Muir: Taylor Hill/FilmMagic. Baier, Raddatz: Paul Morigi/Getty Images for National Geographic. todd: Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic. Roberts: Amy Sussman/Getty Images. l. O’donnell: Cindy Ord/Getty Images. Scarborough: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images. Kotb: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images. Mitchell: Paul Morigi/WireImage. Cooper: Dominik Bindl/Getty Images. Tapper: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for WarnerMedia. N. O’donnell: Theo Wargo/Getty Images. Kilmeade: Noam Galai/Getty Images. Maddow: D Dipasupil/Getty Images for AWXII. Strahan: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images. Davis: Paul Archuleta/Getty Images. Brzezinski: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Stephanopoulos: Noam Galai/Getty Images for The Michael J. Fox Foundation. Wallace: Gary Gershoff/WireImage. King: Paul Morigi/Getty Images for White House Correspondents Insider. Muir: Taylor Hill/FilmMagic. Baier, Raddatz: Paul Morigi/Getty Images for National Geographic. todd: Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic. Roberts: Amy Sussman/Getty Images. l. O’donnell: Cindy Ord/Getty Images. Scarborough: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images. Kotb: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images. Mitchell: Paul Morigi/WireImage. Cooper: Dominik Bindl/Getty Images. Tapper: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for WarnerMedia. N. O’donnell: Theo Wargo/Getty Images. Kilmeade: Noam Galai/Getty Images. Maddow: D Dipasupil/Getty Images for AWXII. Strahan: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images. Davis: Paul Archuleta/Getty Images. Brzezinski: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

This story first appeared in the May 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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