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Audience

Audience

Introduction

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

In 2008 local television remained the most popular source of news in America, but there were abundant signs of trouble.1

An analysis of data from Nielsen Media Research suggests that viewership of local news declined or was flat across all timeslots, during all sweeps periods during the year.2

Evening newscasts, around the dinner hour, were hardest hit.

And the declines were seen not only in news program aired by affiliates of the four largest networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox), but by independent stations and those affiliated with smaller networks as well.

All this only continues a long-term trend. In 1998, nearly two-thirds of the public (64%) told the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press that they regularly watched local television news. By 2008, that number had fallen to 52%.3

Traditionally, local television news audiences were difficult to track at a national level. Data from Nielsen Media Research are designed to help advertisers analyze stations by market, but not as group.

PEJ developed a method, using Nielsen data, to combine the numbers from individual stations into national averages by timeslot and to track the trends of those averages year to year. The data are analyzed for all the major news time slots and across all four sweeps periods — February, May, July and November.

For 2008, we analyzed not only stations affiliated with the four big networks, but also the fledgling broadcast networks CW and MyNetworkTV and stations unaffiliated with a network.4

Four Largest Networks’ Affiliates

Affiliates of the four major networks saw sharp audience declines in both evening and late-night news in 2008.  These ratings have declined every year PEJ has tracked them with Nielsen data, beginning in 2006.

The picture was less bleak for morning news, where ratings remained steady throughout the four sweeps months, although share declined. Evening news (around dinnertime) lost ratings in three out of four sweeps months, with declines as high as 11%.  In share they lost every month save one, when they broke even.

In late news, after prime time, the numbers fell in all four sweeps periods.

Ratings are the percent of households watching a program at a given time among all households in the market. Share is the percent of households watching a particular program among only those households that have their televisions on. These two are the key metrics for audience in local television. Ratings give you a number for a program’s average audience. Share tells you the percentage of television viewers at that moment who are watching that program within a particular market, their market share.

Local News: Change in Ratings
Sweeps Months, 2007 to 2008
Sweep Month Evening News Late News Morning News
February -3.1% -8.6% 0%
May 3.6 -3.1 0
July -6.9 -3.6 0
November -11.4 -3.7 0
Average # of Markets 209 202 205

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Note: Numbers represent ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates

Local News: Change in Share
Sweeps Months, 2007 to 2008
Sweep Month Evening News Late News Morning News
February 0% -10% 0%
May -8.3 0 -6.3
July -8.3 -11.1 -6.7
November -8.3 -12.5 -6.7
Average # of Markets 209 202 205

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Note: Numbers represent ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates

The evening and late night newscasts are now roughly equal in audience size, a change from the time when the earlier programs were larger. Audiences in the morning are roughly half the size of those at night.

Total Audience for Local TV News, 2008
In thousands
Sweep Month Evening News Late News Morning News
February 9,864 9,030 4,336
May 8,195 8,703 3,942
July 7,681 7,625 3,009
November 8,936 7,360 3,929

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Note: Numbers represent ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates

To understand the trends fully, it is useful to break the numbers down by timeslot.

Evening Newscasts

Changing lifestyles and shifting news habits have eroded the audience for the traditional evening and dinner hour news timeslot for years. The election year that captivated the country in 2008 offered no respite.

Local affiliate newscasts between 5 and 7 p.m., the so-called early evening timeslot, saw a drop in ratings and share in three of the four sweep months in 2008, according to our analysis.5

Year to year, ratings fell an average of 3.1% in February, 6.9% in July, and 11.4% in November. The lone exception was May, when ratings were up 3.6% from 2007.6

Despite the industry wide ratings declines for early evening newscasts, there were some signs of hope for early evening newscasts in 2008.

A study conducted by Nielsen Media Research and Broadcasting & Cable magazine found some stations had seen growth of up to 20% in ratings in November 2008 when compared to the same month the previous year.7 The study compared newscasts with ratings of at least 5 points in 56 metered markets.8

Among the big gainers were stations in Washington, D.C., Jacksonville, Fla., and Indianapolis.

Wally Dean, the Broadcast/Online Director at Committee of Concerned Journalists and a consultant to this report, told PEJ that some stations have been able to boost ratings by investing in quality. “Though overall viewership is declining, it is still possible for an individual station to significantly improve its numbers,” Dean said.9

Average Early Evening News Ratings
Sweeps Months, 2005-2008
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Note: Numbers represent ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates

Share, the percentage of people watching TV tuned to local news, also fell three of the four sweeps months. This suggests the evening shows may be losing viewers to other television news (on cable and network television) that focused on national issues, such as the election campaign, the presidential transition and the economy.

The biggest declines came in November, even when interest remained high in news about the election and the economy. The loss in ratings that month was nearly triple that of February and May and double that of July, and share also fell.

According to analysts, there may be several elements at play. One may be the intense focus that cable gave to the election, which lured news viewers. Another is a disappointing fall entertainment lineup on the four networks.  Local news tends to get much of its audience from people staying tuned into that channel before and after their entertainment program. And yet another reason for the sharp decline may be continued impact from the writers strike, when audiences tried different programming.10

Late News

Late news, the programs that follow the end of the prime-time entertainment shows, also suffered, though not quite as much as earlier in the evening.11

Late news ratings declined in every sweeps month, ranging from 3.1% in May to 8.6% in February.12

In share, double-digit losses occurred in every month but May, when share held steady. Even when people were tuning in late then, they were more likely than in 2007 to watching something other than local news.

The steep February losses are at least partly attributed to the Writers Guild of America strike that stopped production of scripted television shows for 100 days from November 5, 2007, to February 12, 2008.

The strike resulted in little new entertainment programming on the broadcast networks preceding the late-night newscasts.

But the strike does not explain all of the decrease, which had been occurring in earlier years as well. The greatest loss in share occurred in November, again, a month of intense news watched by many Americans with the conclusion of the election and increasingly dire economic news. These sharp losses reinforce the findings in the evening hours that local television is continuing to lose out to both cable and the Internet.

Average Late Night News Ratings
Sweeps Months, 2005-2008
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Note: Numbers represent ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates

Audience share lost more than 10 percent in three out of four sweeps months (the change in share in May was flat).

Early Morning

The closest thing to a bright spot in local news was early morning, although here, too, the bloom appears to be off the rose somewhat.

For early morning news (5 to 7 a.m.), the local programs that come on before the network morning shows at 7 a.m., audience figures for 2008 were flat or down.

Average Morning News Ratings
Sweeps Months, 2005-2008
Design Your Own Chart

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Note: Numbers represent ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates

Ratings for all four sweeps months, February, May, July and November, were largely unchanged.

Share, meanwhile, fell (by 6%) in every sweeps period but February (when it was flat). This means that during the early morning hours, people have begun to watch other programming, possibly cable news.

Early morning had until recently been the lone growth area for many local stations around the country. In 2006, however, we found that even this had begun to suffer audience declines in both ratings and share during every sweep month. In 2007, the numbers were flat most of the year but rose in November. Thus 2008 represents a second year of basically stable ratings.

(A number of stations, particularly Fox affiliates, also extend their local morning news beyond 7 a.m., to 8 a.m. and even in some places to 9 a.m., forgoing the network morning programs.13 In 2008, these later morning programs saw ratings declines compared with 2007.)

Morning News: Change in Ratings
Sweeps Months, 2007 to 2008
Time February May July November Average Number of Markets
5-7 a.m. 0% 0% 0% 0% 205
7-8 a.m. -7.1 -15.4 -9.1 -8.3 84
8-9 a.m. -8.3 0 -10 0 19

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Note: Numbers represent ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates

Midday News

Noon broadcasts (noon to 1 p.m.) have become increasingly popular among audiences, and network affiliates continue to add these newscasts to their schedule. Ratings and share for the timeslot are somewhat more stable than others excluding morning news, which held steady from 2007.

Midday News: Change in Ratings
Sweeps Months, 2007 to 2008
Time February May July November Average Number of Markets
Noon  to 1 p.m. 0% 0% -4.8% 5.3% 189

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Note: Numbers represent ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates

Fox Prime Time News: Change in Ratings
Sweeps Months, 2007 to 2008
Time February May July November Average Number
of Markets
9-10 p.m. -6.3% -3.6% -4% -8.7% 74

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Note: Numbers represent Fox affiliates

When Fox developed a fourth network of local news affiliates around the country, it developed a strategy of airing news during what had been the last hour of prime time — 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific time and 9 p.m. Mountain and Central.

In 2008, these prime-time newscasts also declined in viewership, a sign that the problem for news has more to do with than when local broadcast news is airing. The declines appeared both in the 9 p.m. slots in the middle of the country, and the 10 p.m. slot on the coasts. And the later hours suffered even more.

New Timeslots: Changing Schedules

Some local stations have been experimenting with shifting the time they air news around the dinner hour, offering newscasts an hour earlier or a half-hour later than the usual evening timeslot, in the hopes of catching more people. But in 2008 at least, this time shifting seemed to bring little success.

From 4 to 5 p.m., ratings declined an average of 6% in every month except November.
And for the 7-to-7:30 p.m. time-slot, when some local stations were adding newscasts to follow the national network news broadcasts, the loss was roughly three times that.14

Only about three dozen affiliate stations experimented with this time slot in 2008, and judging by the numbers, the path is not promising.

Evening News: Change in Ratings
Sweeps Months, 2007 to 2008
Time February May July November Average Number
of Markets
4-5 p.m. -5.6% -6.7% -6.3% 0% 67
5-7 p.m. -3.1 3.6 -6.9 -11.4 209
7-7:30 p.m. -28 -15.8 -17.6 0 35

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Note: Numbers represent ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates

How widespread is the phenomenon of stations changing their schedules for news?

The evidence suggests that this trend was limited in 2008.

In 2007 PEJ analyzed data for stations affiliated with ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC networks in the top 25 designated market areas in the U.S. Findings indicated that under 25% of affiliated stations did some shifting of their news schedules, with the majority of changes coming in the morning hours.15

For 2008, PEJ expanded this analysis to include independent stations and those that are CW and MyNetworkTV affiliates to better assess schedule shifting in a broader universe of stations.16

In all, just 8 of the 168 stations studied (or just 5%) did some time shifting. The time changes occurred throughout the day, with three stations shifting morning programs, three shifting early evening programs and one each shifting midday and late news broadcasts.

Thus even in absolute numbers, fewer stations were found to have time-shifted news in 2008 in a larger universe of stations than in 2007 among just the four larger network affiliates. And losses in ratings and share during these alternative times may lead to even fewer changes in 2009, or possibly less news on programming schedules over all.

Half of the new programs (19) were added by affiliates of the four large networks, in 13 markets. In all, independent stations added nine newscasts in five markets. CW added a newscast in each of five markets (plus two in Chicago), and MyNetworkTV added a newscast in each of four markets. MyNetworkTV cut two morning newscasts in Miami.  Another practice that has grown in recent years is the production of newscasts for other stations in the same market.  Sharing or selling newscasts generates additional revenues for stations and allows a station to shift schedules across channels without altering its own schedule.

Robert Papper, chairman of the journalism department at Hofstra University, estimates that 200 stations air news that is not produced in-house.17

But Papper sees signs that this is slowing, mostly due to economic factors associated with purchasing newscasts from other stations and lower returns from advertising in general. “The numbers [of stations getting newscasts from others] grew pretty quickly,” Papper said. “But in tough economic times, the number appears to have stabilized — for now.”

Another factor that might change how and when news is watched is the adoption of digital television technology by the public. With more viewers tuned into digital, stations have the ability to broadcast news programming on as many as three channels — a main channel plus two subchannels. Should subchannels gain a substantial audience in 2009, stations could simply rebroadcast or add new newscasts on the subchannels, obviating the need to shift or reshuffle their schedules or program on other stations.

Audiences at Affiliates of Smaller Networks

Local stations affiliated with the four large networks operate in nearly all of the 210 television markets tracked by Nielsen Media Research and get the lion’s share of audience for news.

But two other types of stations air news in some markets.

The first group comprises independent stations, those not affiliated with major network systems. The second group is made up of stations affiliated with two fledgling networks, CW and MyNetworkTV, both of which were begun in 2006.

It is worth looking at these stations ’ ratings to get a larger sense of the universe of local news viewers.

Independent Stations

The number of independent stations, those not affiliated any network, is now quite small.   Depending on the timeslot, only 17 to 25 markets have independent stations with large enough news audiences for Nielsen to track. That small sample of stations makes the data about ratings and share more volatile.18

What the data show, however, is a trajectory even less promising for news than on the large network affiliates.

Independent stations saw ratings and share numbers flat or falling in every time period studied.

In the early evening news block, ratings for these unaffiliated stations were flat in every sweeps month except July, when ratings fell 0.2 ratings points to 0.3. Share fell by half in May, July and November from the year before. It was flat in February.

In the late news block, ratings fell by double digits in every sweeps month, some as great at 22%. Share was mixed, flat during two periods, down precipitously in two others.

And early-morning ratings were down throughout the year compared to 2007 and share dropped through most of the year.

Local News: Change in Ratings, Independent Stations
Sweeps Months, 2007 to 2008
Sweep Month Evening News Late News Morning News
February 0% -20% 25%
May 0 -22.2 -33.3
July -40 -22.2 -33.3
November 0 -12.5 0
Average # of Markets 22 17 20

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

Local News: Change in Share, Independent Stations
Sweeps Months, 2007 to 2008
Sweep Month Evening News Late News Morning News
February 0% -33.3% -25%
May -50 0 -33.3
July -50 -33.3 -50
November -50 0 0
Average # of Markets 22 17 20

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

Morning and Midday News Ratings, Independent Stations
Sweeps Months, 2007 to 2008
Time February May July November Average Number of Markets
5-7 a.m. -25% -33.3% -33.3% 0% 20
7-8 a.m. -20 -40 -25 0 20
8-9 a.m. -50 -50 0 0 13
Noon-1 p.m. 0% 50% 0% 50% 16

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

Early Evening and Late News Ratings, Independent Stations
Sweeps Months, 2007 to 2008
Time February May July November Average Number of Markets
4-5 p.m. -20% -25% -40% -25% 14
5-7 p.m. 0 0 -40% 0% 22
7-7:30 p.m. -0 -0 -33.3 0 13
9-10 p.m. 33.3 50 0 33.3 19
10-10:30 p.m. -10 -0 -11.1 -12.5 18
10:30-11:30 p.m. -20 -22.2 -22.2 -12.5 17

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

CW and MyNetworkTV

The second group of these nonmajor network affiliates is made up of stations affiliated with CW and MyNetworkTV, both of which were started in 2006. In 2008, some stations in the two networks added news.   The CW Network is a joint venture between CBS Corporation, former owners of the defunct UPN and Warner Bros. (which owned the defunct WB television network). MyNetworkTV is owned by Fox and also includes many former UPN and WB stations.

However, only 15 CW stations and 6 MyNetworkTV stations have large enough audiences for Nielsen Media to track, according to data from the ratings company.
Like independent stations, CW and MyNetworkTV stations, many of which were in operation for less than two years at the end of 2008, get much lower ratings and a smaller audience share when compared to affiliates of ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC. But unlike independent stations, a majority of which produced their own newscasts, many CW and MyNetworkTV affiliates air news produced by other stations, mainly from those in their market, but sometimes from those in other markets.

For example, WTVQ, the ABC affiliate in Lexington, Ky., re-airs some of its newscasts on the MyNetworkTV channel in the same market, but at different times than its own newscasts. This practice of sharing newscasts allows the ABC affiliate to compete with other affiliated station newscasts, including the market-leading Fox affiliate, WDKY, while airing ABC national entertainment programming on its own station.19

Stations affiliated with the ION Media network, a small number of Fox affiliates, CW and MyNetworkTV stations most often run news produced by other stations.20

On average, audiences for these new affiliate newscasts are slightly bigger than those of independent stations, according to Nielsen Media Research data. MyNetworkTV stations generally have lower ratings and a smaller percentage of share than independents, according to Nielsen Media Research data.

In 2008, CW and MyNetworkTV stations began expanding the number of newscasts aired, with a handful of stations adding news programming in the evening, when most syndicated entertainment programming traditionally airs on the main networks.
Additionally, a few more stations aired news in the noon hour, between 4 and 5 p.m. and from 10:30 to 11:30 p.m.

But most nonmajor station affiliates broadcast news in four timeslots, in the morning from 5 to 7 a.m. and 8 to 9 a.m., and in the late evening from 9 to 10 p.m. and from 10  to 10:30. Still, the number of CW and MyNetworkTV stations that Nielsen tracks is relatively small compared with samples of major network affiliates.

The results for this growing group of newscasts are mixed. Ratings in the mornings (5 a.m. and 7 a.m.) fell throughout the year. Evening ratings were more divided.

Local News: Change in Ratings, CW and MyNetworkTV Stations
Sweeps Months, 2007 to 2008
Sweep Month 5-7 a.m. 7-8 a.m.
CW MNT CW MNT
February 0% 0% -12.5% 0%
May 0 0 -25 0
July -20 0 -14.3 -33.3
November -16.7 50 0 33.3
Average # of Markets 13 6 19 11

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

Local News: Change in Share, CW and MyNetworkTV stations
Sweeps Months, 2007 to 2008
Sweep Month 5-7 a.m. 7-8 a.m.
CW MNT CW MNT
February 0% 0% -16.7% 0%
May -14.3 0 -16.7 0
July -16.7 0 0 0
November -14.3 0 0 0
Average # of Markets 13 6 19 11

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

Local News: Change in Ratings, CW and MyNetworkTV stations
Sweeps Months, 2007 to 2008
Sweep Month 9 -10 p.m. 10 -10:30 p.m.
CW MNT CW MNT
February 5.9% -9.1% 10% -11.1%
May 0 -22.2 -10 -11.1
July 6.7 -33.3 -10 -11.1
November -18.8 0 -20 0
Average # of Markets 11 9 33 16

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

Local News: Change in Share, CW and MyNetworkTV stations
Sweeps Months, 2007 to 2008
Sweep Month 9-10 p.m. 10-10:30 p.m.
CW MNT CW MNT
February 0% 0% 0% 0%
May 0 0 -33.3 0
July 0 -33.3 0 0
November -25 0 -33.3 0
Average # of Markets 11 9 33 16

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license

Footnotes

1. Pew Research Center, Biennial News Consumption Survey, August 17, 2008

2. The four sweep months are when Nielsen Media Research measures television audiences to help the industry determine advertising rates for television stations

3. Pew Research Center, Biennial News Consumption Survey, August 17, 2008

4. We took Nielsen data for all the stations affiliated with the four biggest local television networks in all designated market areas, called DMAs. That gave us the ratings and share for an average local newscast in each time slot in each sweep month. According to Nielsen Media Research, the DMA “identifies an exclusive geographic area of counties in which the home-market television stations hold a dominance of total hours viewed.” There are 210 DMAs in the United States. See Nielsen Media Research Web site, http://www.nielsenmedia.com.

5. For early evening news, PEJ examined data for newscasts between 5 and 7 p.m. in the Central and Mountain time zones and 6 to 8 p.m. in the Eastern and Pacific zones. For late news, we took 11 to 11:30 p.m. in the Eastern and Pacific zones and 10 to 10:30 p.m. in the Central and Mountain zones. Fox stations generally air news at 10 p.m. in the Eastern and Pacific zones and 9 p.m. in the Central and Mountain zones.

6. The evening news broadcast in February 2008 had an average rating of 3.4 points.

7.David F. Carr, “Growing Ratings Despite (Because Of?) Down Economy,” Broadcasting & Cable, March 4, 2009

8. Metered markets are local markets (of which there are 56) where Nielsen Media Research uses set-tuning meters, which report set usage, or People Meters, which report both set usage and persons viewing information. In the majority of markets (154) handwritten diaries are used to track viewing trend and viewer demographics four times a year, during sweeps months.

9. Wally Dean, e-mail communication with PEJ, February 4, 2009.

10. David Bauder, “Tough economic news is good for evening newscasts,” Associated Press, February 3, 2008

11. For late news, PEJ examined 10 to 10:30 p.m. in the Central and Mountain time zones and 11 to 11:30 p.m. in the Eastern and Pacific zones.

12. In February, ratings decreased 0.3 ratings point, from 3.5 in 2007 to 3.2 in 2008. In May, ratings were down by 0.1 ratings point, from 3.2 in 2007 to 3.1 in 2008. In July, ratings were down by 0.1 ratings point, from 2.8 in 2007 to 2.7 in 2008. In November, ratings were down by 0.1 ratings point, from 2.7 in 2007 to 2.6 in 2008.

13. Fox airs a nationally broadcast morning program of its own, the Morning Show with Mike and Juliet, in 68 markets, that begins at 9 a.m. A few CBS affiliates that decline to use the Early Show feed from the network air local news during these hours.

14. There are instances when the network news itself airs at 7 p.m., such as the NBC news broadcast in Washington, D.C.

15. While it does not constitute time shifting per se, stations can also generate revenue by producing news for other stations in the market at different times than their own newscasts. More than 200 stations in the United States now purchase newscasts from other places.

16. From data licensed from Tribune Media Services, PEJ examined newscasts schedules of one weekday in November 2008 and compared it with the corresponding weekday in 2007 for all stations in the top 25 DMAs.

17. According to Papper, about 770 stations produced news as of February 2009.

18. Over all, stations not affiliated with a major network get lower ratings and a smaller share of the audience when compared with stations affiliated with ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC. Thus increases and decreases in ratings and share from year to year are generally more volatile than those of affiliate news programs, which get higher ratings and a bigger share of audience.   Since the total number of stations is small, it is hard to draw broad conclusions about the health and future of independent local news programming and local networks. A spike or decline in one market can heavily impact the ratings or share numbers for that month.

19. Scott Sloan, “WTVQ aims at Fox by launching 10 p.m. news,” Lexington Herald-Leader, December 5, 2008. Online at: http://www.kentucky.com/181/v-print/story/616039.html.

20. It should noted that because the audience for CW and MyNetworkTV news is too small in most markets for Nielsen to measure, results reported here each type of affiliate are based on a small sample of markets, and should be interpreted cautiously. Timeslots noon to 1 p.m., 4-5 p.m., 7to 7:30 p.m., 10 to 10:30 p.m. were not examined for CW and MyNetworkTV either because a valid comparison could not be made, or estimates were based on data from fewer than five stations.

21. Share tells a station how it is performing compared with the other stations in the local area. Ratings give a sense of the total audience and are used by advertisers to determine what price they are willing to pay for an ad on the particular program. James Webster, Patricia F. Phalen and Lawrence W. Lichty, (2000) Ratings Analysis: The Theory and Practice of Audience Research, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.