Before you Sign your Life Away

Drew Stewart is a 1997 graduate from the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina. He spent 19 years working in TV news in South Carolina.  Stewart currently
lives in Columbia, SC, and is a one person video department for the South Carolina Department of Transportation.

Perhaps I used a bit of hyperbole in the title, but the truth is, when you sign your first contract, make sure you have a lawyer look at it first.

I once had a well-seasoned labor attorney look at one of my contracts. Here are $300 worth of takeaways you’re getting on me.


Here are my suggestions as to what you should ask for:

Clothing allowance: Many local stations have clothing contracts with stores and companies which trade with the station for a certain amount of advertising or promotional endorsements.  It’s at the end of most newscasts.  They’ll have a graphic at the end of the show saying, “Ed and Susan’s wardrobe provided by Capital City Fashions.”  The amount of the allowance will depend on your job.  I was a sports reporter/fill-in anchor so I got $500, enough to buy one suit at the place with whom that station had a deal, but it wasn’t a problem since I didn’t need a suit for my job unless I was on the set.

If you’re a met or anchor ask about a makeup allowance. Many corporate stations are striking deals with makeup vendors. So you may be able to have the station pick up the tab on that.

Here are some points of which you really need to be mindful when signing a contract:

Contracts will always be in favor of the station.  We’re in a period now where nearly all local TV stations are owned by massive companies with lawyers on staff who specialize in labor contracts. Most attorneys in general would tell you to never sign such a one-sided deal, but since you’re like I and hundreds before were, we all have or had stars in our eyes, and reporters often tend to be left-brained romantics set on living out dreams than thinking in purely practical terms (at least I am), you’ll put fate to the wind and not let anyone talk you out of signing it. Because this is what you slaved for staring for hours at a screen with Final Cut Pro on it and  you’ve created hundreds of “job agents” on TV station websites, and finally it’s paid off in the form of  your first job offer.

If it’s your first job, you have little negotiating power.  I don’t know how many of you are Country music fans but back in 1978, Kenny Rogers had a hit song called, “The Gambler.” Fortunately for the purposes of this post, Geico’s ad people have brought it back into public awareness. The chorus of the song is” You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run.” Which is a good lesson for when you negotiate your first deal.  Unless you have some intangible no one else in the world has, there are any number of people who will take the job you’re being offered.

When your name is on the dotted line don’t even think about breaking that contract.  A contract is a legal binding document between you and this massive company with a whole office of lawyers looking to come after you should you leave before your part of the bargain is fulfilled.

The contracts will most likely be binding under the laws of the State where the parent company is located, so if you have an issue with them you’ll have to go to Alabama, Virginia or Maryland and hire an attorney to settle the dispute in that jurisdiction.

Be wary of the non-compete.  You’ll hear people say, they’re not legally binding (in some states, they are not) but there’s an unspoken rule in TV: Don’t raid our talent and we won’t raid yours.  A non-compete clause defines the amount of time you have to be out of  the job you performed for your previous employer before you can perform similar duties for that company’s competitors.  In my opinion, companies use it as a means to keep salaries low. I’ve seen cases where reporters have bolted for one station and were reporting for another in the same market the next week. Those were rare cases where the decision to part ways was mutual.

The most important thing to remember is your contract is a legal document spelling out what the terms and duties of what you’ll do for the company and what the company will do for you.  Don’t fall into the trap of, well I’ve had it, there’s nothing they can do to stop me from leaving. Don’t be sucked into the thinking that fulfilling your contract is optional.

The good news is contracts are standard in the biz, so don’t be afraid to sign one.  Just make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into first.

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