By Carl Gottlieb and Atiba Pertilla
By any measure of financial success, quality journalism sells.
In the four years that the Project for Excellence in Journalism has conducted its annual study of local television news, 55 percent of "A" stations have successful ratings trends, better than any other grade.
This year we found quality is also the best way to succeed when it comes to market share, demographics and audience retention.
Our 2001 study included 43 stations in 14 markets. We found the correlation between quality scores and household ratings not quite as strong as in years past: for the first time another grade ("B" stations) actually scored better than "A" stations in our sample. But we also measured quality against other yardsticks broadcasters told us they consider important. When we did, the case for quality became even stronger.
Quality, the numbers show, is the best way for a news program to retain or add to its so-called lead-in audience. "The fact that we can maintain audience from program to program shows that viewers are not just loyal to our programs – they're loyal to our station," says Diane Caggiano, research director at KTVK in Phoenix, a high-quality station from last year's study. "That gives us the ability to get the number-one share in the market for selling advertising."
This year was the first in which we studied lead-in numbers for every broadcast. We found that 63 percent of "A" and "B" stations were adding or retaining audience. Stations in the middle didn't fare so well: only 27 percent of "C" stations and 20 percent of "D" stations were gaining on their lead-in.
Both of our "F" stations were building audience. But don't try this trick at home. The "F" stations are at the absolute bottom of our quality scale and most newsrooms are not good enough to be that bad.
Quality is also the best way to build market share – the percentage of households watching TV tuned to a given station.
Four years of data reveal that high-quality stations are the most likely to be gaining in share over time. Fifty-seven percent of our "A" stations were building share over time, significantly better than every other grade. What's more, "D" and "F" stations were most likely to be losing share.
Over four years, it turns out, the correlation between quality and share is even stronger than the correlation we have generally used, basic household ratings. As the number of people watching television declines, the ability to claim the largest share of the available audience is becoming more and more important to station management.
Quality also turns out to be the best way to attract the audiences advertisers want most – people aged 18-to-49 and 25-to-54. Half of all "A" stations this year were improving in these demographic groups over time, better than any other grade. At the other extreme, neither "F" station was improving, and the next worst category was the ten "D" stations.
While the amount of data is small, it suggests that going downmarket may alienate the most demographically desirable audience.
When we began this study, we cautiously concluded from our data that the news did not have to bleed to lead – that audiences were not demanding trash and flash in local TV news.
If broadcasters were aping the tabloids, it was their own choice, not the audience's. There was no penalty for doing better local news.
Today, we can say something more. Audiences prefer quality.
If a company that owns television stations wants to protect and nurture its assets, the data suggest investing in quality is the best strategy. It may require investing in people, giving them time, and even resources, but it is more likely than any other approach to pay commercial dividends over time.
Carl Gottlieb is deputy director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Atiba Pertilla is a research associate at PEJ.