Miller Bias Case Focuses On Late News

November 25, 1990|By David Zurawik Eric Siegel of The Sun's features staff contributed to this article. | David Zurawik Eric Siegel of The Sun's features staff contributed to this article.,Sun Television Critic

Paying close attention to "WIOU" won't help you this time. Watching reruns of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" won't either.

What's needed when considering the suit filed last week by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against WBAL-TV (Channel 11) -- on behalf of former anchorwoman Rudy Miller -- is an understanding of the way local television news operates.

The suit -- separate from another Ms. Miller herself filed in January -- alleges that the Hearst station discriminated against her in pay and assignments because she is a woman. In her last year at WBAL, she made $141,000, approximately $40,000 less than her male counterparts.

At stake is not just the compensation the EEOC seeks -- an undetermined amount in back wages, damages and compensation for loss of income since she was fired in 1989 for refusing to sign a new contract that she considered unfair. The suit also demands that she be reinstated and asks for a permanent injunction against WBAL from discriminating against its employees on the basis of sex.

What's more, EEOC officials said they want the case to "send a message" to the television industry that sex discrimination will not be tolerated.

What is this suit about? Are women routinely paid less than their male counterparts at anchor desks around the country? How are salaries at the anchor desk determined anyway? And why did the EEOC choose this case?

Though the suit has various components linked to working conditions and pay, at its heart is Ms. Miller's contention that she was paid less than her male counterparts because she is a woman, and Channel 11's contention that she was paid less because she was unwilling to anchor the 11 o'clock nightly news, which the male anchors she's comparing herself to did.

Forget all the other he-said, she-saids for the moment. What is so significant about the 11 o'clock news?

Quite simply, the 11 o'clock newscasts are the big money-makers for most television stations, which are generally able to charge advertisers the highest rates for that time period. The reason is that, as a rule, more people with more money to spend are watching television at that hour than are watching during other newscasts at 6 a.m., noon, 5 p.m. or 6 p.m., according to Harvey Rabinowitz, a senior vice president for the W. B. Doner & Co. advertising agency.

Ratings bear out a leap in audience size. For example, according to Arbitron figures for last November, the number of sets turned on at 6 a.m. throughout the entire Baltimore market was 128,000. At noon, the local TV audience grew to about 218,000. At 11 p.m., the number of television sets turned on was 370,000.

Furthermore, Rabinowitz and other industry analysts say, the audience at 11 p.m. is more upscale, generally speaking, than those watching at other news times. There is also a supply and demand factor involved in higher rates: There are fewer advertising spots within the half-hour broadcast at 11 than during the hourlong news blocks at 5 and 6.

Last January, in response to Ms. Miller's original charge of discrimination, WBAL said that it received 10 percent of its advertising news revenues from the noon news, 28 percent from the 5 o'clock, 22 percent from 6 o'clock and 40 percent from the 11 p.m. broadcast.

Those figures can vary depending on how highly a station is rated on various newscasts, but industry analysts say the range of one-third to about 45 percent of total news revenues coming from the late news is reasonable.

And that is, in part, why the men and women who sit at the anchor desks during those newscasts almost always are paid the highest salaries: Their work earns the most money for the station.

"They put their biggest hitters on at 11 o'clock, because ratings are worth more at 11," said Rabinowitz.

But Douglas A. Gallegos, a trial attorney in the Baltimore district office of the EEOC, discounted the differences in pay for different newscasts in an interview with The Sun last week.

"We did not find that to be a valid factor," he said. "What's required is that a person be doing substantially equal work. We felt the work she was doing [anchoring the noon and 5 o'clock newscasts] was substantially equal.

Ms. Miller told The Sun last week that she did not refuse to work the late newscast, as Channel 11 contends.


Are women routinely paid less at the anchor desk than men?

Not according to many women in broadcasting, such as Robin Hughes, editor of FineLine, a national journal of ethics in the newsroom. "While women have traditionally worked cheaper than men, for [anchors], salaries have been comparable," said Ms. Hughes, who worked 14 years as an editor and reporter in broadcast news.

Television news consultants say that in many cities women are paid more than men, because research indicates they are more popular.

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