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Local TV – Intro

Intro

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Local TV news continues to face a complex future.

The situation with audiences is hardly ideal. Ratings for the key early evening newscasts appear in most markets to be continuing their decline, and there may be trouble now in the early morning. But there are some indications that late local news, the programs that air after prime time, may be improving their audience appeal.

The industry is still enormously profitable. Pre-tax profit margins of 40% and even 50% are not uncommon. Revenues were down in 2005 from the year before, but that is typical following a presidential election year.

The more fundamental question is whether local stations are risking their future by continuing to insist on such huge profit margins and year-to-year growth in earnings when the audience is stagnant. Is the industry repeating the mistake many critics believe newspapers have made, of failing to invest in the product to maintain the public’s loyalty at the very moment when there was intensifying competition?

That question may have been all the more relevant for the last three years, when an uncertain regulatory environment meant that media companies were less likely to grow by buying up new properties. Contrary to what was expected when the Bush Administration took power in 2001 with promises of more deregulation, the ownership of local television had changed relatively little.

The more worrisome picture, experts believe, is in the newsroom. Though the data are harder and harder to pin down, the best evidence suggests that TV journalists continue to be stretched thin, required to produce more programs and making the conversion to the Web — usually without a commensurate increase in their budget. Money is also being diverted to make the transition to digital. And it is not only the on air-product that’s suffering; the effort in these new areas, especially online, is probably not what it should be.

Our content analysis, this year as in the past, seems to reinforce those worries. In our Day in the Life of the News study, local TV news stories emerged as the most thinly sourced and shallowly reported of any medium studied other than local radio (DITL Local News). What’s more, some of the stereotypes about local news seemed to be borne out in the data. Roughly half of all the newshole on local TV news that was not given over to weather, traffic and sports was devoted to crime and accidents. Stories about local institutions, government, infrastructure, education and more were generally relegated to brief anchor reads in the middle of the newscast.

Yet despite the problems, people like local news, partly for the simple reason that it is local. And it is increasingly formatted to help people with their lives, particularly in the early morning, when it offers a snapshot of headlines and late-breaking stories, and can help people figure out how best to get to work and tell them what the weather will be like. Indeed, in the entire media landscape, probably no source offers coverage of the weather outlook with the depth and sophistication of this industry.