Traffic reporter, sales chief leave WISH ahead of CBS pullout

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WISH-TV Channel 8 has lost two key employees in the last week as uncertainty clouds the station’s future.

Julie Zoumbaris, who had been WISH's sales director since 2009, departed to take that same position with WRTV-TV Channel 6, the ABC affiliate announced. And morning traffic reporter Julie Patterson left after she and station executives were unable to come to terms on a new contract, industry sources said.

The departures come a month after CBS Corp. announced it would switch its affiliation from WISH to WTTV-TV Channel 4 on Jan. 1. WISH officials have made no announcements about how they plan to proceed without the national network affiliation.

The loss of CBS is expected to put a huge dent in station revenue. Austin, Texas-based LIN Media, which owns WISH, agreed to shave $110 million off its sale price to Richmond, Virginia-based Media General in an acknowledgement of just how deeply the loss of CBS could hit the Indianapolis TV station. The move affects the stock portion of the $1.6 billion merger, which is expected to close in early 2015.

Zoumbaris declined to comment on her move to WRTV, and Patterson could not be reached for comment.

WISH officials did not return a call seeking comment.

While most of WISH’s on-air employees are locked into place by contracts, many advertising executives and sales associates either don’t have contracts that prohibit them from leaving the station or have contracts with more lenient non-compete clauses.

In the meantime, LIN officials have tried to steady the ship internally. Earlier this month, LIN honchos gathered with WISH employees to show their appreciation for their work and assure them they are working on a plan for a future without CBS, according to a source close to the station.

WISH management, industry sources said, hope to announce their plan—including their new programming schedule—to employees by early October. However, a local media buyer said nothing has been conveyed to WISH advertisers on what the future will look like without CBS.

The switch comes at a critical juncture for WISH. This is the time of year that annual buys are negotiated with advertisers. If WISH doesn’t lay out a clear plan to advertisers, that likely will complicate setting ad rates and consummating annual ad deals.

“One thing we know is that [WISH’s Nielsen] ratings come the first of January won’t be as high as they are now,” said Rick Gevers, an Indianapolis-based agent who represents on-air news talent.

The possibility of lower ratings—and ad rates—could have pushed Zoumbaris to WRTV.

“People in advertising are always looking for a better account list or commission rate,” said Tom Cochrun, a former WTHR-TV Channel 13 anchor and WISH news director.

Media experts say CBS parted ways with WISH to prove to affiliates nationwide that it’s serious about scooping up a bigger chunk of “retransmission consent” fees—the money TV stations get from cable and satellite providers for the right to carry their signals. For WISH, those fees total some $10 million a year, Wedbush Securities estimates.

While networks and affiliates lately have been splitting retransmission fees 50/50, CBS CEO Leslie Moonves has been outspoken in asserting that’s not good enough, given the eyeballs top shows like “NCIS” draw for affiliates and the massive sums the network spends for NFL football rights.

While little is known about WISH’s future plans, the late August hire of Les Vann to replace Jeff White as president and general manager could be telling.

“Les has a background in news,” Gevers said. “News is where he got his start in this business. He is a former anchor and news director, and I think that’s an indication that they will not only continue with local news, but could look to expand those offerings.”

Most recently, Vann served for just less than two years as president and general manager of LIN-owned WJCL-TV Channel 22, an ABC affiliate, and WTGS-TV Channel 28, a Fox affiliate, both in Savannah, Georgia.

“Les has done a terrific job in Savannah, rebuilding and launching a new brand, transforming its news department and strengthening the station’s commitment to localism,” Jay Howell, LIN Media’s vice president of television, said in a statement. “He brings a unique skill set to WISH-TV and WNDY-TV that will be very important to these stations’ growth and development.”

WNDY is a LIN-owned station in Indianapolis without a network affiliation.

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