Local television news has reached a crossroad.
Viewers are beginning to abandon the medium, especially to the Internet, much as network news began to lose audience more than a decade ago with the advent of cable.
But in response the industry is headed toward making a fateful mistake.
A major ongoing study of local television news reveals that the business is cutting back on precisely the elements that attract viewers — including enterprise, localism, breadth, innovation, and sourcing. A major reason is that the business is committed to maintaining profit margins it enjoyed in an earlier era.
Without needing to, local television news is driving Americans away from what was long the most popular and trusted source of information in the country.
These are some of the key conclusions of Year Three of the continuing study of local television news by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a think tank affiliated with Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
The study, which this year examined 49 stations in 15 cities, continues to provide empirical evidence repudiating many of the conventional assumptions and current business trends in local television news.
Once again, the study finds that quality sells — better than any other approach. Over three years, across 146 different stations of varying sizes, the case is clear: Overall, 64% of “A” quality stations were building ratings, a higher percentage than any other grade and nearly double most grades.
The problem is that not enough stations produce quality. In those three years, just 10% of stations in our main study earned “A” grades. Most earned “Cs.” And that percentage is even lower if we include prime-time hours and early-morning news. This lack of faith in quality is the issue.
Consider these other key findings of the study, produced by the Project and a team of local TV journalists, university scholars and professional content researchers:
- Quality is the best way to retain or increase lead-in audience. And the surest way to lose lead-in audience is to trick up newscasts with easy gimmicks — eye candy, ratings stunts and hype. In a test of 28 stations, only one “A” station was failing to add to its lead-in. Only two with a “C” grade or lower were adding to it.
- The best way to build or keep audience is to cover a broader range of issues and topics. Stations that cover less of the community, or aim newscasts at specific audiences, are the most likely to be losing ratings. This challenges one of the popular programming strategies today in broadcasting: demographic targeting, which is done to please advertisers.
- Local news seems to be moving in the wrong direction. In particular it is getting thinner. The amount of enterprise, already shrinking, is withering to almost nothing. The amount of out-of-town feeds and recycled material is growing. The majority of stories studied this year were either feeds or footage aired without an on-scene reporter.
- Local TV ignores whole sectors of society. The poor have all but disappeared. Out of 8,095 stories studied this year, only seven concerned the disadvantaged. By comparison, 336 concerned entertainers. Over three years, and some 25,000 stories, only 35 focused on the needy.
This year the study examined newscasts in 15 cities during a February sweeps week and a March non-sweeps week, some 49 stations in all. A team of professional coders analyzed 8,095 stories from 500 broadcasts, or 300 hours of local news. The results were then statistically analyzed by researchers at Wellesley College and Princeton Survey Research Associates and interpreted by a team of journalists.
In eight of these cities we studied the most popular news time slot, as we have in earlier years. In four markets, we examined the hour-long primetime news, and in three other cities the 6 a.m. news. In two other cities, where we had earlier studied 11 p.m. news, we studied 6 p.m. We also looked at innovative newscasts from two stations for comparison purposes: KTVU in Oakland, and WBBM in Chicago.
In the morning, when audiences (and thus ad rates) are small, newscasts are produced on the cheap, and it shows. While local morning news is heavy on traffic and weather, it’s light on original reporting, enterprise and even sourcing (see At 6 A.M., It’s Morning Lite).
In prime time, the assumption is that it may be the only broadcast people see, and so there is more national and international news. But the shows are surprisingly light on ideas, heavy on crime and celebrity.
One program, Oakland’s KTVU, showed how good these hours can be (see Bucking the Trend). Most seem to be aiming fairly low. A former TV news consultant offers concrete suggestions to improve primetime broadcasts (see News in Prime Time.)
We also did our annual survey of stations and found some deeply alarming trends. Among them, a third of stations now report being pressured to slant the news in favor of advertisers (see Sponsor Interference).