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Audience

Local TV
By the Project For Excellence In Journalism
Audience

Local television news appears to be losing its audience at an accelerating pace.

In 2009, viewership at affiliates of the four major networks, which produce most of the local television news in the U.S., declined across all timeslots, according to PEJ’s analysis of data from Nielsen Media Research.

For early evening and late news, the viewership decreases were steeper than in 2008. And in 2009, there were declines in early morning local newscasts as well, which had been stable the previous two years.

The declines were also seen across all four networks, with CBS and Fox the hardest hit as well as NBC’s late night news.

There may be some distinctions by market size and geographic breakdown (not available in this analysis), but these numbers reveal a clear pattern across more than 200 markets, roughly 800 stations.

Network Affiliates

Affiliates of the four major broadcast networks — ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC — saw their ratings, share and viewership decline in all months and all news timeslots studied.1

There was a sole minor exception. The only one of the 27 measures not to suffer a decline was share for the May sweeps month for late night news, which was flat.

Even more worrisome, the declines appeared to worsening.

Not only did morning news also fall in 2009, along with early evening and late news. But the rate of decline for early evening and late news appeared to be much steeper than the year before. On average, local TV newscasts lost twice as many viewers in 2009 (4.1 million viewers) across the three sweeps periods compared to the 2008 loss (2 million viewers).

Total Average Audience for Early Evening News, 2009
In Millions

Sweep Month 2008 2009 Percentage Change
May 23.8 22.5 -5.4%
July 22.3 20.9 -6.3
November 26.3 25 -4.9
Average 24.1 22.8 -5.5

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

Total Average Audience for Late News, 2009
In Millions

Sweep Month 2008 2009 Percentage Change
May 29.6 28.6 -3.7%
July 25.7 23.9 -7
November 28.6 25.9 -9.1
Average 28.0 26.1 -6.5

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

Total Average Audience for Morning News, 2009
In Millions

Sweep Month 2008 2009 Percentage Change
May 12.9 12.5 -3.9%
July 9.9 9.2 -7
November 13.1 12.2 -7.6
Average 12.0 11.2 -6.1

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

To do this analysis, PEJ combines the data from Nielsen Media Research about individual stations and computes national averages for each timeslot. We do this for three sweeps months during the year. (Click here to read more about how PEJ analyzes local TV audiences.)

Across the three sweeps periods, early morning newscasts fell an average of 6.1% in 2009, after increasing 1% through the same period in 2008.2

Late newscasts following prime time (which does not include 10 p.m. news on many Fox stations) fell an average of 6.5%, following a drop of 1.5% in 2008.

Early evening newscasts fell 5.5%, following a decrease of 6.6% in 2008.

For a better understanding of the trends it is useful to examine these timeslots individually.

Late News

What stood out this year in the continuing decline of late night news (the programs that follow the end of the prime-time entertainment shows on ABC, CBS and NBC), was a much steeper decline in ratings, while losses in share were less than seen a year ago.

  • Both July and November sweeps months had ratings declines that were more than double the declines of 2008 (10% in July 2009 versus 3.6% for July of 2008 and 9.4% in November 2009 versus 3.7% for November of 2008).
  • When it came to share, however, the declines were not quite as steep as in 2008: 9.1% in July versus 11.1% for the same time period in 2008 and 8.3% in November versus 12.5% in 2008.
  • Total viewership declined at increasing rates throughout the year, from a decline of 3.4% in May to a 9.1% decline in November.

Just how much of this might be connected to the short-lived and poorly rated Jay Leno show, which was broadcast during the November sweeps on NBC just prior to the late news? A closer look at the Nielsen data suggest quite a bit.

First, the steep ratings declines versus more modest drops in share indicate that the problem was fewer televisions over all were tuned to late night television rather than fewer TV viewers watching local news. In other words, rather than watching something other than Leno, many people simply stopped watching TV altogether after 10 p.m.

In addition, PEJ conducted additional research of the Nielsen data, separating the findings by network. With this analysis the connection between Leno and the declines in late news becomes clearer.

During the November sweeps when Leno was on the air, NBC affiliates saw ratings, share and viewership fall more than twice as much as ABC affiliates. CBS stations on average actually saw slight increases in viewership. (For a fuller discussion see “The Leno Effect.”)

Local News: Change in Ratings
Sweeps Months, 2008 to 2009*

Sweep Month Evening News Late News Morning News
May -7.1% -2.9 -7.1%
July -7.7 -10 -9.1
November -6.7 -9.4% -7.1
Average number of Markets 207 207 203

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Note: Numbers represent ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates
*March 2009 ratings are not comparable to the traditional winter sweeps period, February, and are not included here.

Local News: Change in Share
Sweeps Months, 2008 to 2009*

Sweep Month Evening News Late News Morning News
May -8.3% 0% -6.7%
July -9.1 -9.1 -14.3
November -9.1 -8.3 -7.1
Average Number of Markets 207 207 202

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Note: Numbers represent ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates
*March 2009 ratings are not comparable to the traditional winter sweeps period, February, and are not included here.

Early Evening Newscasts

Local affiliate newscasts between 5 and 7 p.m., the so-called early evening timeslot, also had a drop in ratings and share in all three sweep months examined in this report for 2009.3

  • The fall in ratings was fairly consistent across sweeps periods, 7% in May and November and 8% in July.
  • Share, the percentage of people watching televisions tuned to local news, was also down to a similar degree: 8% in May and November and 9% in July. These losses were roughly on par with the losses in 2008.
  • Viewership declined between 5% and 8% each month. Fewer people now watch this early evening, or dinner hour, newscast than watch late night news.

One possible explanation for why the audience of early evening news was smaller than late newscasts in 2009 is a gradual change in television viewing habits in recent years, when audiences around the dinner hour have gotten smaller. Wally Dean, the broadcast/online director at the Committee of Concerned Journalists and a consultant to this report, believes two factors may be at play in audience decreases of early evening newscasts.

First, Dean said, early evening newscasts are less important to consumers, who are increasingly accessing news (including local stories) online at work. “By the time people leave work, they feel like they know what’s going on so they don’t turn on the evening news,” Dean told PEJ.

Yet later, after prime time has ended, “They haven’t grazed on the news in a while….  They want to know what’s going on before they go to bed,” Dean said, including what the weather will be like when they wake up or if there were any late developments in the news. The pattern explains why audiences for late news have diminished at a slower rate.

The second major factor working against early evening newscasts, Dean said, is Americans’ long commutes from their jobs. “With people taking jobs anywhere they can find them, it often takes longer for people to get home,” Dean said. “And people trying to save money on their commutes may be taking public transportation or carpooling. All that cuts into people watching in the early evening.”

Morning News

After two years of relative stability, ratings, share and viewership in 2009 all also had significant declines during the early morning newscasts that many local stations now air.

Stations lost share for morning news in each sweeps period in 2009, with declines as steep as 14% (July). Morning newscasts lost the fewest viewers among the traditional local newscasts, but it still amounted to a relatively high proportion of their audience (audiences for morning newscasts was roughly half that of early evening news).

  • Year over year, morning ratings fell 7% in May, 9% in July and 7% in November.
  • Share was down 7% in May, 14% in July and 7% in November.
  • Viewership was down in 2009, as much as 7% in November, compared to increases in 2008, as high as 2% in May.

After serving as the growth area for local news for many years, audiences leveled off in 2007 and 2008, and they fell in 2009, suggesting that viewers were turning to other news offerings during that timeslot, perhaps to online and mobile news. In 2009, the downward trajectory solidified with losses coming from fewer people tuning in to local television at all.

Fox Local News

The strategy developed by Fox affiliates of airing local news at off-hours – the 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. morning hour and 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. late night hour – also showed signs of difficulty in 2009.

  • The morning hour designed to compete with the first hour of the national network morning news shows saw ratings declines between 7% and 9%.
  • The late evening hour – set against the last hour of prime-time programming – had even greater losses: 15.4% in July and 18.2% in November. They fared worse than late local newscasts that air on ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates an hour later.

Morning News: Change in Ratings
Sweeps Months, 2008 to 2009

Time May July November Average Number of Markets
7-8 a.m. -7.7 -9.1 -8.3 75

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Note: 7-8 a.m. figures represent Fox affiliates only.

Fox Affiliates, Prime-Time News: Change in Ratings
Sweeps Months, 2008 to 2009

Time May July November Average Number
of Markets
10-11 p.m. -6.5% -15.4% -18.2% 167

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

Local Affiliate News in Nontraditional Timeslots

To counter the lower audiences for newscasts at traditional hours, stations in recent years have shifted the times when they broadcast news. Stations have added newscasts at noon, or before and after early evening newscasts.

For the most part, the strategy offered mixed results in 2009. The timeslot following the network evening newscasts fared the best.

  • Ratings and share for the noon news timeslot were down in 2009, after holding steady in 2008.
  • News broadcasts in the 4-to-5 p.m. hour, before the evening newscasts, lost more than 6% of their ratings each month.
  • The timeslot that fared best was 7 to 7:30 p.m., which mainly held steady.

Network Affiliate Midday News: Change in Ratings
Sweeps Months, 2008 to 2009

Time May July November Average Number of Markets
Noon to 1 p.m. -5.6% -5.6% -11.1% 139

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

Network Affiliate Evening News: Change in Ratings
Sweeps Months, 2008 to 2009

Time

May July November Average Number
of Markets
4-5 p.m. -6.7% -6.7% -6.3% 33
5-7 p.m. -7.1 -7.7 -6.7 207
7-7:30 p.m. 3.6 0 0 135

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

Independent Stations

The number of independent stations — those not affiliated to any network — is now quite small. Only 6 to 18 markets, depending on the timeslot, had independent stations with large enough news audiences for Nielsen to track. (For network affiliates, most timeslots are measured in more than 200 markets.)4

Over all, the number of viewers tuning in to news on independent station newscasts is minuscule compared to network-affiliated stations. In the early evening timeslot, the viewership of news on independent stations is just 1% of the network affiliate viewership (25 million on network affiliate versus 290,000 on independents). Independent stations do slightly better in the last hour of prime time (10 p.m. to 11 p.m.) when they mainly compete with Fox stations. In that hour, their viewership is 10% of Fox stations and 9% of the affiliate audience altogether (5.4 million for the four network affiliates versus 497,000 for independents).

Similar to Fox affiliates, independent stations schedule news programs to compete with network programming on ABC, CBS and NBC. And like Fox, independent stations get their biggest audiences for newscasts during the last hour of prime time, from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. But even compared to Fox stations — which attract the smallest number of viewers, on average, among network affiliates — the viewership of news on independent stations is much smaller, ranging from 8% (morning news) to 48% (noon to 1 p.m. newscasts), the size of Fox’s local news viewership.

Viewership of Local News for Independent Stations, Fox Affiliates and Network Affiliates, November 2009
In Thousands

November 2009 Independent Stations Fox Affiliates ABC, CBS and NBC Affiliates
5 a.m. to 7 a.m. 144 1,758 10,434
7 a.m. to 8 a.m. 206 2,248 189
Noon to 1 p.m. 201 423 7,601
5 p.m. to 7 p.m. 290 2,275 22,737
7 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. 155 464 11,191
10 p.m. to 11 p.m. 497 5,187 225
11 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. 128 1,034 24,917

Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Note: Network Affiliate numbers represent ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates


Footnotes

1. In 2009, local television audiences were measured in March rather than February because of the scheduled transition to digital television. Since there are no valid data to compare to the one-time March sweeps month, PEJ’s analysis this year relies on May, July and November data. Fox stations are excluded from the analysis of late news because few air news during the 11 p.m. timeslot. A separate analysis of Fox stations’ 10 p.m. newscasts is included.

2. To arrive at these findings, PEJ took the average total weekday audience for each sweeps period and combined them into an average for that time period across all three and compared that year to year.

3. 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.

4. In previous years PEJ had analyzed full-year data on independent stations — those not affiliated with any broadcast network. For the 2010 report PEJ could not include such an analysis because the applicable data were not valid due to systematic errors Nielsen Media Research discovered in August 2009. As a result, PEJ’s analysis offers a broad sense of the state of independent local news based on figures from November 2009, the last of four sweeps months.