Almost all the questions for local news in 2005 begin with viewership. Is the apparent stabilizing of the audience that we saw in 2004 more than a one-year blip?
If the loss in audience is really leveling off, it could, at least potentially, ease a host of pressures – beginning with those on revenues. Newsrooms have felt a decade of intensifying demands to find more “revenue opportunities.” With audiences shrinking, they have turned to selling corporate logos on weather maps and sports scoreboards, adding sponsored segments, and packing more ads into a half-hour of news. Even the impetus to create new hours of news programming, in part, is a function of looking for more revenue.
A stable audience base would help newsrooms get more resources to gather and report the news. It might also keep local TV newsrooms from falling into the cycle that has beset newspapers – cutting newsroom resources in bad times, and not building all the way back up during the good.
But there are also some more subtle cautions to keep in mind if the decline in audiences abates. The problems with viewers had spawned serious soul-searching among some broadcasters about the content they were putting on the air. For some stations that soul-searching meant turning away from an automatic dependence on consultant research that was sometimes more cookie-cutter than thoughtful.
Add to this two other questions, the potential new threat in local news advertising from cable and the general sense that most local TV stations are behind the competition in developing a presence in what clearly is the next battle ground, online news.
Given the extraordinary profitability of local news, there is a significant risk, if audiences level out, that its executives will fall back into thinking that all is well with the industry and that their future is assured.