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Local TV – Intro

Intro

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

In nearly every aspect of local television – from viewership to economics to ownership structure – there are mixed signals of health and challenge. The next few years may determine whether the industry ultimately heads up or down. But at least one survey shows more people who work in local television news are pessimistic than optimistic about the industry’s future.

Viewership of local news has begun to decline, much as it did years earlier in network news. Since 1997, the share of available viewers commanded by local early evening newscasts around the country has dropped 18 percent. The share commanded by late news, which is broadcast after prime time is over, has dropped 16 percent.1

Weather in most markets is the primary reason to tune in, and it is becoming more available from cable and the Web. The decline in viewership, in turn, is furthering straining the flow of revenue. To pick up the slack, newsrooms are being asked to do more with less, expanding the number of hours of news they produce, often with the same or even lower budgets. According to one survey, the average workload demanded of reporters increased from 1.5 stories a day in 1998 to 1.8 in 2002, an increase of 20 percent.2

While some of the criticisms of local news are overblown – crime dominates but it is not all-crime-all-the-time nor is it all homogenized news from nowhere – content studies suggest there are some serious shortcomings in what local news provides. Among them, according to one body of data, 60 percent of stories that involve disputes mostly present only one side of the story.

Commercial and academic surveys suggest at least a portion of the viewers who have stopped watching local television news have done so because they find it repetitive, formulaic, sensationalized or insipid. Brand loyalty is weakening and more viewers, research suggests, are likely to sample stations and churn through them.3 Other surveys have found that 30 percent of the public is generally convinced that what they see on local television news is improperly influenced by powerful outsiders like advertisers and the political elite.4

While technology advances are opening up new possibilities for producing the news, the cost of these advances is also a burden. Stations have to convert to digital technology and build Web sites, and much of that investment is coming at the expense of expanding newsrooms.

These are all the challenges, but there are also numerous reasons for local news professionals to be confident. The decline in viewership is not as steep as in network news. The audience for local television news is still relatively large. Local news remains an enormously profitable business, still able to draw big audiences and still able to amass huge advertising revenues.5

It is still a healthier business than most and is considered, at least for now, much better off than network news. This is one of the major motives behind big networks’ current push for deregulation. They want the ability to own more local stations.

Advertisers still rely on local television and the authority that the public ascribes to it to sell their products. Local advertisers still often demand that their commercials air during news programs and political campaigns still work to ensure that their ads appear during or around newscasts.

These changes do not seem to have had much effect on how people perceive local television news. The public trusts the local news, although it is ambivalent about certain practices, and relies on it for information. In a 2002 survey, 65% rated local TV news a 3 or a 4 on a four-point scale of believability, about the same as network news and cable, and ahead of newspapers.6 Local television stations also engage in a number of community service activities that enhance their profile and their reputation, and provide commercial time free of charge for charitable organizations. On-air reporters often participate in various volunteer initiatives and serve as de facto “ambassadors” for their stations. News, weather and sports anchors remain, in many ways, the public faces of their community.

The question for the future of local television news is which way it turns. The biggest threat it faces now is the paradox of an undernourished product that is in oversupply. The market is saturated with news shows. In trying to differentiate one product from another, stations have tended to emphasize branding over content.

The issue is whether the industry, before it reaches the dangerous level of audience decline that has befallen network news, decides to invest in its product to reach out to new audiences, or decides it is a mature industry that should focus on efficiency and profit instead.

What’s the Difference Between Local and Network Television?

Local television became prevalent in the late 1940s and early 50s. Originally, there were only a few stations in large cities that offered a few local shows mixed in with network programming provided by broadcasting companies based in New York. Over time, the relationship was formalized into a system of O&O and affiliate stations. O&O stations are those owned and operated by networks, while affiliate stations are owned by non-network companies but have a contractual agreement to air the programming of a network.

The country is divided into 210 television markets and a network-affiliate contract basically assumes that an affiliate station has the sole authority to broadcast that network’s program within the bounds of its particular market.7 Broadly speaking, the networks own stations only in the biggest markets, and they rely on affiliates to ensure that their programs are seen in the parts of the country where they do not own stations.8

There are now six English-language broadcast networks, which can be put in three groups: ABC, CBS and NBC, the longest-established; UPN and WB, the newest, and Fox, which was established before UPN and WB but after the Big Three, and shares aspects of each group. In particular, when it comes to news, affiliates of the Big Three are the most likely to have long-established newsrooms that air multiple newscasts, while UPN and WB stations are least likely to have newsrooms (except in the biggest markets), though they may occasionally air newscasts provided by a station under common ownership affiliated with one of the Big Three networks. Fox stations generally have newsrooms but air less news than Big Three affiliates.

The contracts in most cases require that the networks pay the stations compensation for airing their programs. In recent years, however, the networks have done a number of things to try to end this arrangement, such as demanding that affiliates contribute to the cost of paying the multi-million-dollar contracts to broadcast sports events and reducing or eliminating compensation altogether.

Given that there are few viable alternative strategies for affiliate stations to program their entire day without the network (especially with the availability of cable and the high cost of syndicated shows), the affiliates have generally been forced to accept whatever terms the networks are willing to offer. (There have been a few notable exceptions: KRON-TV in San Francisco, the market’s longtime NBC affiliate, went independent when a San Jose station offered to pay $25 million a year for 10 years in return for the NBC contract; KTVK-TV in Phoenix, a former ABC station, became independent in 1995 after a series of affiliation changes in the 1990s left it without a network; and WJXT-TV in Jacksonville, Fla., became independent in 2002 after CBS and Post-Newsweek were unable to agree on a new affiliation contract.)

Many companies that own network affiliates fear that the FCC’s decision to allow higher ownership limits may increase the networks’ leverage in negotiating compensation contracts. As of January 2004, negotiators from the White House and Congress had modified the FCC’s initial proposal to allow Viacom and Fox-the two largest companies-to keep the stations they own but expand no further. The other networks, ABC and NBC, still have room to add stations regardless of the FCC’s rules.

On the other hand, the networks resent the fact that they are paying affiliates 4 percent (in big markets) to 20 percent (in smaller ones) of a station’s total revenue, while the networks alone shoulder the costs of developing programming.9 What is not in dispute is that local stations give the networks a presence in the community that would be almost impossible to recreate from a New York or Los Angeles headquarters.

Footnotes

1. These statistics are based on PEJ analysis of ratings data supplied by BIA Financial Network for 529 local television stations staffed with news directors and affiliated with ABC, CBS or NBC. Stations affiliated with other networks were excluded because they either do not air news or air news in nontraditional timeslots.

2. See Marya Jones, “Does quality cost?” Columbia Journalism Review, January/February 1999 (http://www.journalism.org/resources/research/reports/localTV/1998/cost.asp), and Deborah Potter, “Pessimism rules in TV newsrooms,” Columbia Journalism Review, November/December 2002 (http://www.journalism.org/resources/research/reports/localTV/2002/pessimism.asp).

3. See Deborah Potter and Walter Gantz, “Bringing viewers back to local TV: What could reverse the ratings slide?” Newslab.org. (http://www.newslab.org/research/bringback.htm), and Insite Research, “Television Audience Survey: Local Television News,” October 1999, discussed more fully in the section on Audience.

4. Radio-Television News Directors Foundation, “2003 Local Television News Study of News Directors and the American Public.” General Public Questionnaire, questions 34-42.

5. The Jack Myers Report, a media newsletter, estimates that in 2002 broadcast stations brought in some $24 billion in ad revenue, more than any other advertiser-supported outlet except newspapers. All told, broadcast stations garnered some 14.6% of all advertising spending in that year. See Jack Myers Report, “Advertising Expenditures History and Forecast, 1998-2006,” p. 3.

6. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “2002 Believability Survey,” May 6-16, 2002 question 9. Online at: http://people-press.org/reports/print.php3?PageID=631.

7. The market bounds at times depend on the strength of the broadcaster’s signal; for example, the Washington market includes two NBC stations, WRC and WHAG in Hagerstown, Md., because WRC’s signal does not penetrate far enough to cover western Maryland.

8. Of the broadcast networks that own broadcast stations, Fox and CBS have the highest penetration, with stations that reach 39% of all TV households; NBC’s stations reach 34%, and ABC reaches 24%.

9. See John M. Higgins, “Big four look small in the margin column,” Broadcasting & Cable, June 30, 2003, p. 1.