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Audience

Audience

When it comes to viewership of local television news, two trends stand out.

Collecting viewer data for local news is not as easy as for network news. It involves gathering statistics from 750 stations that produce local television news in 210 markets. But the evidence of the audience decline is consistent enough to be clear.

From 1998 to 2002, the Project collected Nielsen Media Research audience data for each station included in its content study. In every year of that research, the vast majority of stations studied were losing audiences. In the year of the greatest decline, more than 88 percent of stations studied were losing audience. In the best year, 72 percent of stations studied were losing audience.

Percent of Local TV News Project Stations
Losing Audience, 1998-2002

Year Percent of Stations Losing Audience
1998 82.0%
1999 78.0
2000 88.5
2001 72.1
2002 84.9

Source: PEJ analysis of Nielsen Media Research data

Not only were most stations losing audience every year, but many of them also were losing people every ratings period, roughly the same rate each year. Over the course of the five years from 1998 through 2002, the average ratings loss was about 0.4 ratings points per year, or about 2 ratings points over five years. In a big market, like Chicago, this would be equivalent to losing 35,000 viewers a year. In a smaller market, like Wichita, it would mean losing 4,300 viewers a year.

This trend becomes even clearer looking at another audience measurement, the share of all television sets turned on at a particular point in time. BIA Financial Network, or BIAfn, a media investment research company, collects data from Nielsen Media Research on every television station in the country. It found that from May 1997 to May 2003, the cumulative share of television sets turned to early evening local news had dropped 18 percent. The share of sets tuned to the late news, after prime time, dropped by 16 percent.

Average Early Evening News Share
May 1997 to May 2003
Design Your Own Chart
Source: BIAfn MediaAccess Pro
Average Late News Share
May 1997 to May 2003
Design Your Own Chart
Source: BIAfn MediaAccess Pro

If one tries to imagine what this means for a mythical average local television station, the results become easier to grasp. The average early evening local television news station in the country in 1997 had a 19.4 share. Today, it has a 16.1 share.

The average late local newscast (after prime time) in 1997 had a 22.3 share. Today that has dropped to 18.7 share.1

What is the difference between ratings versus share? Ratings show the percentage of all television sets in the market tuned to a given program. Share tells us the percentage of just the television sets in use at a given time tuned to each program – or something akin to market share. Thus the decline in share tells us fewer people who are watching television are choosing local news. But that might not tell the full scope of audience loss of local news since 1997. It does not measure those people who have turned off the television set altogether. That total audience loss could be greater than 18 percent in early evening news, or it could be less. What the decline in share does tell us, however, is that more and more people who are still watching television are now watching things other than local news.

The issue, in other words, is not just that people have turned off the television set. They have turned off the news in particular.

Why? Here the research is varied and hard to pin down. Some of the reason for declining viewership is almost certainly due to technology. There are more channels to choose from. Some sets that might have been tuned to local news are now tuned to Nickelodeon, ESPN or the Game Show channel.

Some evidence suggests people are also less satisfied with what they see on local television news. A study conducted by NewsLab, an organization that helps television news operations with research and training, and executed at Indiana University found that many people are deliberately avoiding local television news and getting their local news from other sources.

People who choose not to watch local television news offered specific reasons to explain why they had stopped watching. The most frequent responses that addressed local television content identified three problems: too much crime, too much fluff and too much repetition.

Reasons Given for Not Watching Local TV News

Reason Given Percentage (More than one answer accepted)
You are not home when the news comes on 38.6%
You are asleep when the late news comes on 36.6
You get local news elsewhere 35.2
You are too busy to watch when home 34.4
There is too much crime on local TV news 32.0
You are watching something else when the news is on 27.0
Local news is always the same stuff 25.0
There are too many fluff stories 24.6

Source: NewsLab

The NewsLab research is reinforced by a survey from a commercial concern called Insite Research, which found that viewers felt there were fewer distinctions between newscasts and thus felt less loyalty to any one station.2 [See also Public Atittudes.]

Some of the decline in viewership, however, has nothing to do with channel preference but probably has to do with changes in the way people live. Americans wake up earlier and commute longer. Indeed, as the chart above shows, roughly one-third of the news audience is no longer available to watch news because they are either commuting during the evening newscast or asleep by the time the late news begins.3 One sign of this is the fact that, according to news professionals, the most likely growth area for local news in most markets has been early morning news, before 7 a.m. This is why many stations now produce more hours of news, starting as early as 5 a.m. in larger markets. The trend has included stations in large markets pushing the start of their morning news programs earlier and earlier, while midsize markets are adding morning news where they once aired syndicated shows.4

Footnotes

1. Because share varies depending on the time of day and the number of viewers watching, it cannot be translated into an exact quanitification of viewer loss.

2. Insite Research, “Television Audience Survey: Local Television News,” October, 1999.

3. Deborah Potter and Walter Gantz, “Bringing viewers back to local TV: What could reverse the ratings slide?” NewsLab.org. Online: http://www.newslab.org/research/bringback.htm.

4. For example, see Todd Bishop, “TV’s morning wars,” Philadelphia Business Journal, March 27, 2000, online at http://www.bizjournals.com/philadelphia/stories/2000/03/27/story1.html; and Rich Kirchen, “Local news is getting up pretty early in the morning,” The Business Journal of Milwaukee, August 2, 1999, online at http://milwaukee.bizjournals.com/milwaukee/stories/1999/08/02/newscolumn2.html.