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Local TV: Audience Rise After Years of Decline

By Deborah Potter of NewsLab, Katerina-Eva Matsa and Amy Mitchell of PEJ

After years of losing audience and revenue, local television news appears to have settled into a kind of equilibrium. Stations made less income in 2011 than the year before, but the decline was about what might be expected in a non-election year. And the overall audience for local TV news grew as stations added newscasts at different times and on additional platforms, including their digital channels. Local stations also expanded their online, mobile and social media offerings, but most have not yet generated a substantial audience.

Audience

Local television news showed resilience in 2011, gaining audience in some key time slots that had seen only declines for the previous four years.  Among network affiliates, viewership was up for newscasts in both the morning (5 to 7 a.m.) and late evening (11 p.m.) when averaged across all sweeps periods we studied.  In the early evening time slot (5 to 7 p.m.), viewership was down slightly. There were gains in audience in the very early morning (4:30 to 5 a.m.). A 2011 survey found that local TV remains America’s most popular source of local news and information, particularly for weather and breaking news, but the local stations continue to face challenges in their attempts to grow online and mobile audiences.1 (See Digital Audience Section for more)

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The turnaround for ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC stations in the three key time slots for news extended the more grudging progress they made in 2010, when they lost audience at a much slower rate than the year before. The improvement in 2011 was not substantial enough to suggest that local TV news has entered a period of new audience growth, however. Fox stations, in particular, are still losing viewers in nontraditional time slots, which is when most of them air local news. (See below for more on Fox Affiliates) But the local news audience over all may have stabilized after years of decline.To quote Mark Twain, ‘Reports of our death are greatly exaggerated,’ ” said Hearst Television’s vice president for news, Brian Bracco.

A closer look at individual sweeps periods offers a clue to at least one reason behind the improvement — there has been higher interest in the news. The jump in late news ratings was largely due to a 14% increase in viewership in February, when the news was dominated by the upheaval in Egypt and Libya. Late local newscasts tend to cover more national and international news than early evening newscasts, which leave those topics to the network news programs that are broadcast adjacent to them.

Experts do not expect the audience growth at 11 p.m. to continue. Viewership in that time period has been on the decline for years, and the uptick in 2011 does not appear to constitute evidence of a long-term rebound. “We’ve reached a threshold for late news,” said Mark Toney, a senior vice president of the consulting firm SmithGeiger. “Only about 40-50% [of the audience] really wants it in any market.”2

NBC affiliates, in particular, are fighting an uphill battle to retain their late news audience in the face of sharply lower ratings for the prime-time network shows that lead into their newscasts. NBC’s prime time line-up, already in fourth place among younger viewers, lost more than 800,000 total viewers from the previous season.3 (See data section for more)

While local stations may take some heart from the apparent recovery of late and early evening newscasts, the longer-term outlook is troubling. Interest in news may have boosted viewership in 2011 but only by helping stations draw a larger share of a smaller overall audience. In most sweeps periods we looked at in 2011, share outperformed ratings in the early evening and late time slots. In other words, news programs that maintained or even boosted their share of viewers still saw their ratings decline. That suggests these newscasts are battling a trend over which they have no control. If fewer people are watching broadcast TV of any sort at evening and late news time, local stations can’t expect to see their audience grow ever larger.

Morning news is a notable exception to the downward trend. Share there is holding generally steady compared to the year before and ratings are up. The evidence indicates that more viewers are turning on their TVs specifically to watch local morning news programs. In many markets, they’re also tuning in earlier than ever.  Newscasts starting at 4:30 a.m. have become almost commonplace; the number of stations offering news that early doubled again in 2011, by PEJ’s count, and viewership exploded, up more than 338% on average across all sweeps periods compared to the year before, although the total audience is still relatively small.

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The success of local news at 4:30 a.m. encouraged some stations in 2011 to push their start time even earlier. The audience at 4 a.m. is not massive — for example, only about 13,000 viewers a day on average on WXIN, the Tribune-owned station in Indianapolis. But executives at WXIN are convinced that putting news on the air that early pays off in a couple of ways. First, given that the staff at WXIN was already in place, it cost the station almost nothing to produce; the station made a profit from day one. News director Lee Rosenthal also credits the early start with improving ratings for the rest of the station’s newscasts, including doubling viewership for the 4:30 a.m. half-hour compared to the year before. “We’re producing more news and that’s added to our credibility and exposure,” he said. “The earlier we’ve gone on, the more we’ve gained off of it.”4 What is harder to measure is the effect on the content of having less time to produce each newscast.

Another growth area for local news was at 4 p.m., where Oprah Winfrey’s long-running talk show had dominated the ratings in most markets before moving to Winfrey’s cable channel, OWN, in 2011.

Some stations replaced Oprah with another syndicated program. Others, such as ABC-owned WTVD in Durham, N.C.,5 Raycom’s WMC in Memphis, Tenn.,6 and Belo’s KHOU in Houston7 added news.  None of the new newscasts in these markets matched Oprah in viewership, but several held on to the top spot in the ratings for that time slot.8

And some stations, whose existing 4 p.m. newscasts used to compete with Oprah, saw their ratings rise sharply when her show went off the air. At CBS-owned WJZ in Baltimore, for example, viewership for the 4 p.m. news jumped by 55%, post-Oprah.9 The gains may not last. “The jury is still out on the long-term appetite for local news in the afternoon,” said Jerry Gumbert, chief executive of the consulting firm AR&D.10 That is one trend local news professionals will watch in 2012.

The other trend, besides very early morning news, has been the addition of news in nontraditional time slots such as midday and following the network news at 7 p.m. This expansion in news time has been one way to counteract shrinking audiences in more conventional news slots. Network-affiliated stations had some success holding on to their news audience in these nontraditional midday and 7 p.m. time slots. After losing 2.1% of their viewers on average a year ago, midday and 7 p.m. newscasts on ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC stations saw their average audience increase in 2011, although only slightly.

At Fox affiliates, however, the bad news for their prime-time newscasts continued in 2011. For the second year in a row, those newscasts lost more audience than news in any other time slot on network-affiliated stations. Many Fox affiliates air an hour-long news program at 10 p.m. Eastern Time or equivalent because the network does not provide an evening newscast. Those prime-time newscasts lost 3.9% of their audiences on average in 2011, only somewhat less than they lost the year before.

Fox affiliates still haven’t been able to gain much traction with the morning newscasts they air opposite network programs on ABC, CBS and NBC, either. Average ratings for 7 a.m. local newscasts on Fox stations were virtually flat in 2011, after declining for four years in a row. (See data section for more)

Once again in 2011, local news on independent stations showed bigger audience gains, on average, than news on stations affiliated with one of the big four broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC).  Independent stations still account for less than 3% of the total local TV news audience, and their ratings growth can be attributed in part to an increase in the number of markets where independents aired local news. On average, the independent stations’ combined news audience grew in every time slot except at midday. (See data section for more)

Stations affiliated with ABC, CBS and NBC gained audience in most time slots in 2011, but the largest gains were in nontraditional time periods where fewer network stations air news. Affiliates saw double-digit or greater gains on average across all four sweeps periods at 4:30 a.m., 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.

The average audience for news on Fox affiliates also increased in all but two time slots in 2011, but much like other network-affiliated stations, Fox saw the largest gains in time periods with the smallest viewership. Fox stations lost viewers at noon and 10 p.m.

While it is not possible to draw conclusions from this limited data, it appears that the network affiliates may be poaching audience from each other. Fox affiliates gained more audience than ABC, CBS and NBC stations at 11 p.m., for example, a time slot where Fox stations have not traditionally aired news. By contrast, ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates made some of their biggest gains in direct competition with Fox’s prime-time newscasts at 10 p.m., which lost audience on average compared to the year before.

One lingering concern for all local television stations is that viewership could hit the skids again once the economy fully recovers. “People in recessionary times watch more television,” said AR&D’s Gumbert. “We’ve seen that over 40 years.”11

If the reverse is also true, the improvement in ratings seen in 2011 may not last.

Digital Audience

While local television stations can claim to be the No. 1 news source for most Americans, the same cannot be said of most of their websites. In a PEJ survey, just 6% of respondents said they relied on a local TV station’s website for weather information, compared to 58% who said they depended on local newscasts for weather. Local TV websites were the source of choice for just 5% of those surveyed for breaking news and 3% for local political news.12

Still, local TV websites can expand the reach of a station’s broadcast content. A study by Nielsen Media Research of stations in Seattle and Portland, Ore., found they increased their late news audience by 3 to 5% by reaching users online, drawing a different demographic. In Seattle, where KOMO’s late local news viewership skewed 71% female, a majority of the station’s online users were male. 13

More stations ramped up their use of social media in 2011. Almost every station in the country now has a Facebook page, according to the annual RTDNA/Hofstra survey, and almost 90% have at least one Twitter feed.14 And some stations said their social media efforts paid off online and on the air.

Indianapolis station WTHR grew its Facebook fan base from 8,000 to 100,000 in seven months by requiring its staff to be active on the social media site. “Every on-air talent had to have a fan page and had to update it at least once per day,” said Amy Parish, the station’s digital media director. By the end of the year, she said, advertising spots on the station’s website had sold out.15

Salt Lake City’s KUTV credits its improved newscast ratings to a concerted effort on Facebook, where the station’s pages amassed more than 390,000 fans, almost doubling in just 10 months.16 “I think social media helped KUTV 2News win every newscast during February sweeps,” said news director Jennifer Dahl. “Social media can encourage people to sample a station’s newscast, however, you still have to have a quality show to maintain interest.”17

Local stations may be able to make some headway in the competition for online users thanks to the growth of paywalls on newspaper sites, says Robert Papper of Hofstra University.  In 40 of the top 50 markets, newspaper sites outdraw TV sites, but some television stations dominate their markets online, including KSL in Salt Lake City and WRAL in Raleigh, N.C. In Albuquerque, N.M., where the local paper put up a paywall in 2001, KOAT now reaches twice as many adults online as the newspaper.18 “Newspaper paywalls are going to make that increasingly common,” Papper said, “and TV stations are poised to be the biggest beneficiaries of those paywalls.”19

Economics

Local television revenues typically fall in non-election years due to lower demand for political advertising, and 2011 was no exception. After seeing their revenues bounce back in a big way in 2010, stations expected to make less money in 2011, and they did. Broadcast ad sales, which provide the vast majority of local TV revenue, were projected to decline by about 6.7% to $18.1 billion, according to the latest forecast from BIA/Kelsey.20

The bad news is that local broadcast ad revenues were only slightly higher than in the previous off-year of 2009, in the depths of the recession.  And they were still a long way from the record $21.5 billion local stations reaped in 2007, the last non-election year before the recession hit. (See data section for more)

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Longer-term data show just how deep a hole individual TV stations have to climb out of. Although the economic recovery was good to local television in 2010, as the average revenue for news-producing stations increased more than 13% from the year before, that good news came after a long decline. And if projections for 2011 hold, average station revenue from on-air advertising when adjusted for inflation, came within a whisker of a 15-year low.

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Still, the industry is more stable than it was five years ago, when ad sales and audiences cratered. “[Station owners] are not afraid of their core business disappearing as they were a few years ago,” said Harry Jessell, editor and co-publisher of TVNewsCheck. “They couldn’t see where things were going. Now they can project.”21

Spot Advertising

Most of the revenue decline from 2010 to 2011 was due to the predictable drop in political advertising, but other factors were also at work. Auto advertising, which had surged in 2010 as the automotive industry came back from the near-dead, was down again.  The Japanese earthquake and tsunami in March disrupted supplies of both imported cars and auto parts, leading to a sharp reduction in ad sales, according to Kantar Media.22

Stations expect the automotive sector to bounce back in 2012 because it has been so weak for so long, said TVNewsCheck’s Jessell.  If car sales pick up as expected, local TV stations should see better earnings. “Dealers spend $1,000 on advertising for every car sold and stations will get their share,” he said.23

Television remains the biggest recipient of total advertising dollars spent on any single medium. “While the growth of online advertising has been robust, it hasn’t stopped brand advertisers from keeping the bulk of their budgets flowing through TV sets,” said eMarketer chief executive Geoff Ramsey.24

At the same time, though, competition for local spot advertising with nonbroadcast TV distribution systems intensified in 2011. As part of their agreement to carry channels like MTV or BET, individual cable and satellite systems are allowed to sell time to local advertisers.25 Broadcast still reaps substantially more revenue from local spot ad sales than cable, but cable is closing the gap. Local spots on broadcast now bring in slightly under twice as much as those on cable, but just four years ago they pulled in almost three times as much.

Local stations have a wider reach than cable and satellite systems, since 100% of the viewers in any given market can receive over-the-air signals. But in about 50 of the largest markets, comprising more than half of all TV households, a combination of cable, satellite or telco-delivered television reaches more than two-thirds of local viewers.26 Buying time on all of those systems at once used to be cumbersome, but a cable alliance announced in 2011 is offering advertisers one-stop shopping for multiple distribution systems in the same market, posing another potential threat to local station revenues.27

In theory, commercials on subscription services could be targeted much more precisely than broadcast ads, right down to the zip code. The technology is still being tested but has potential, said Gordon Borrell, chief executive of Borrell Associates, a firm that studies local online ad buys. “If it comes to fruition, it will skim dollars from broadcast TV, but probably take bigger chunks from suburban newspapers, direct mail and radio budgets,” he said.28

As expected, almost every ownership group reported lower revenue at their local stations for the third quarter of 2011 compared to the same period the year before. For example:

Only one group bucked the trend: Nexstar reported that its revenues were up 2.3% in the quarter, thanks in part to the company’s acquisition of more stations and higher fees from stations Nexstar manages but does not own.34 There was some optimism that the overall advertising picture for 2011 would improve when the final quarter results came in. “We are seeing a welcome strengthening in automotive advertising,” said Media General chief executive Marshall Morton.35

Political Advertising

The decline in political advertising in 2011 followed a record year in which local stations took in $2.3 billion from campaign and issue ads after the Supreme Court eliminated spending caps on corporations, unions and other interest groups.  Even though the Republican presidential race got off to an early start, the candidates spent little on television ads until the final weeks of 2011, in part because they were able to reach voters for free thanks to an unusually busy schedule of televised debates.36 (See data section for more)

In 2012, however, political spending on television is expected to set yet another record, as much as $3.2 billion, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group at Kantar Media.37 The pool of political campaign cash will be bigger because this is the first presidential election year since the Supreme Court decision on campaign spending by so-called super PACs. And local TV once again will take the largest single share — projected to be as much as $2.6 billion — dwarfing the amount spent on all other media combined.38 Super PAC advertising is particularly lucrative for local stations because they can charge top dollar for commercial time. Candidates, by contrast, must by law receive the lowest ad rate available on local TV stations within 45 days of a primary.39

Even though the only contested presidential primaries and caucuses are on the Republican side, “Barack Obama in 2012 will spend more money on TV advertising against Republicans than probably Clinton and Obama spent combined advertising against each other” in 2008, said Ken Goldstein, the president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group at Kantar Media.40

While some advertisers have ramped up online spending at the expense of legacy media, Goldstein sees little threat to television from the internet when it comes to political ads because local TV remains the best way to reach large numbers of uncommitted voters. “I always say the internet is a great way to raise money to spend on television,” Goldstein said.41

The local TV windfall from this growth in television advertising may not be as big as some observers expect, however. That will depend on where the money is spent. The most competitive Senate and gubernatorial races in 2012 are in small states, Goldstein said, and at least part of what drove spending to record levels in 2010 was that California, Texas and New York — states with big media markets — all had competitive races for governor.

Another factor is that local stations increasingly have to compete for local advertising with cable channels, where advertisers can even more precisely target whom they reach, given the niche demographics of each channel.

Those local broadcast stations that do benefit from campaign cash may have the problem of too much of a good thing. Demand for political ads could leave stations with less time to sell to their regular advertisers. Moreover, the nonstop barrage of campaign ads could irritate viewers, said Harry Jessell of TVNewsCheck. “The problem is how to manage it all,” he said. The expected influx of political ads may even have encouraged some stations to add newscasts, Jessell said, so they would have more local advertising time to sell in 2012.

Retransmission Fees

A growing but still relatively small source of revenue for local stations comes from the fees cable and satellite systems pay them to carry the local channels. Some local station groups managed to reap a substantial reward in 2011 by playing hardball when their agreements with distributors came up for renewal. Stations demanded much higher fees and threatened to pull their channels from distribution on cable systems if they didn’t get their way.

One company, LIN TV, did more than threaten. The company, which was said to have demanded triple digit increases, took its stations off Mediacom cable in four states for six weeks before reaching a deal on higher fees.42 Fox reportedly demanded a 40% hike from DirecTV and reached a deal just hours before its channels would have gone dark.43

Estimates indicate that retransmission revenue has doubled in just two years and will continue to grow, although the rate of growth will slow. In part this is a battle over business models. Cable channels, such as CNN or Fox News, get roughly half their revenue from subscription fees (or fees from cable channels passed on to each subscriber) and half from ads. Broadcast channels carried on cable were making much less in fees, even though receiving a clear signal for broadcast stations may be part of the reason people will subscribe to a cable or satellite system. According to Nexstar Broadcasting chief executive Perry Sook, broadcast stations get 40% of the viewership on distribution systems but currently capture just 5% of the revenue.44

Another reason that network affiliates have been so aggressive about increasing retransmission revenue is that they cannot keep it all. Up to half of the money they receive from cable providers goes to the networks in the form of reverse compensation. And the networks, which have struggled financially even more than local channels, plan on being more aggressive themselves about this money. Fox demanded a flat fee per subscriber rather than a percentage of retransmission revenue from its affiliates and dropped two stations that balked.45

SNL Kagan estimated that the fees affiliates pay to the networks will increase almost ten-fold over the next four years, from $146 million in 2011 to $1.3 billion in 2015.  Stations have grumbled about giving up the fees, but SNL Kagan said they are coming to terms with the arrangement because they see a potential benefit.If the networks can get more money from local affiliates, they may minimize how much of their most popular programming they make available free online. That could be an incentive for local stations to continue paying higher retransmission fees to the networks.46

Stations also might be more willing to hand over a larger chunk of their retransmission revenue to the networks if the fee agreements are negotiated differently. Currently, station ownership groups have to deal separately with each cable or satellite system, market by market. NBC has proposed negotiating the fees for all of its affiliates and sharing the proceeds. Nexstar’s Sook said that approach would probably increase fees to stations more quickly than they could expect to achieve on their own.47

Digital Revenue

One source of revenue for local television stations is growing consistently: online and mobile advertising.  Digital is “the driving economic force of the future and the only growth area,” said analyst Diane Mermigas of Mermigas on Media.48 Borrell Associates, a firm that analyzes local online advertising, estimated that local stations would bring in $1.85 billion in 2011, up 38% from the year before.49 BIA/Kelsey, however, estimated online revenue for local stations would be considerably less, about $550 million, according to vice president Mark Fratrik, but still a 22% increase from 2010.50 (See data section for more)

One major reason for the growth: television captured a larger share of this bigger pie of online and mobile – 11.8% compared to a revised estimate of 10.5% in 2010, according to Borrell data. By contrast, “pure play” companies (those that are online only) gained almost no market share. What once appeared to be a major threat appears to have stabilized. “The local pure play companies for a while began looking like a Pac Man, eating up a lot more of the local online advertising share,” said chief executive Gordon Borrell. “It pretty much stopped at 50% and it’s been that way for two years.”51

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A Borrell Associates survey of publicly reported media companies at midyear found that television stations had enjoyed the highest growth rate in online advertising of any medium, with Belo stations up 19%, Scripps up 26% and Gray up 47%.52 While that success may be mostly due to the fact that they started at a much lower level than other media, it is evidence that some television ownership groups have finally recognized the potential of online sales. Many of these stations now have sales staffs dedicated to digital, something they did not have before. The key difference between companies that are growing at double-digit rates and those bumping along with growth under 2% is the presence or absence of an online-only sales force, Borrell noted.

Borrell also expects this growth in television’s online revenue to continue. In its 2012 forecast issued in November, the market research firm projects the overall online revenue pie to grow 18% to $18.5 billion, with television taking an even larger share, 13.4%.53

One reason is the rapid expansion of video advertising on digital platforms. This gives television an advantage over other media, said Larry Shaw, Borrell’s vice president of research. “They’ve got the capability in house to produce video ads for clients,” he said. “That’s where broadcast TV has been able to make some headway.”54

The question of digital will only become more important in time. According to a forecast from Forrester Research, online and mobile will gobble up 35% of all ad spending by 2016 and take over the top spot from TV.55 BIA/Kelsey says locally targeted ads will make up an increasing share of mobile ad spending, hitting 70%, or $2.8 billion, by 2015.56

Ownership

The moribund market for buying and selling local television stations showed new signs of life in 2011.

More stations changed hands than the year before and for considerably higher prices. While the total value of station mergers and acquisitions was still minuscule compared to the decade before the recession hit, transactions topped a billion dollars for the first time since 2007 and were almost ten times the value of station sales the year before.  And in what may be a sign of a major deal to come, Nexstar announced it is exploring “strategic alternatives,” including a possible sale that could net almost a billion dollars.57

Sinclair Broadcasting was the biggest player in 2011. It bought 15 stations from two ownership groups. In the single largest acquisition in four years, the company paid $385 million for the eight-station broadcast division of Freedom Communications, which had been on the block since the company declared bankruptcy in 2010.58 Sinclair also bought seven stations owned by Four Points Media for $200 million.59 The deals put Sinclair in charge of more than 60 stations, the most owned by any one TV station group, and Sinclair’s chief executive, David Smith, hinted that the company might still be looking to buy.

E.W. Scripps paid $212 million for the broadcasting unit of McGraw-Hill, picking up nine stations, including ABC affiliates in Denver, Indianapolis and San Diego.60 CBS bought an independent station on Long Island, N.Y., for $55 million.61 In other smaller deals, Citadel Communications bought Global Broadcasting’s station in Providence, R.I., WLNE, for $4 million62 and a group of local investors paid Newport $1.1 million for the NBC affiliate in Fairbanks, Alaska.63

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One reason the market picked up was that buyers got a better handle on what stations are really worth, said Harry Jessell, editor and co-publisher of TVNewsCheck. “What’s become clear is the reverse compensation [of retransmission revenue to the networks],” he said. “Stations are keeping about 50% [of retransmission fees] and you can calculate that into cash flow now.” With sales prices hovering around 10 times cash flow over two years, “it’s as good a time to sell as you’re going to get,” said Jessell.64

Even so, Jessell does not expect a sudden rush of station sales in 2012. Potential buyers are still uncertain about the economic recovery, he said, and FCC ownership rules still prevent the merger of big station groups. Among other things, those rules limit the number of stations a single company can own in a market and whether one company can own newspapers and broadcast stations in the same market. The FCC attempted to loosen the so-called cross-ownership ban in 2007, but the move was tied up in a legal battle and finally rejected by a federal court panel in 2011.65 FCC action is expected in 2012 on a new proposal to allow cross-ownership of newspapers and TV stations in the 20 largest markets while keeping the TV single market ownership caps in place.66

While the current rules have limited big media mergers, they haven’t kept stations across the country from entering into contractual agreements to share resources, sales staff and even facilities. According to a University of Delaware study, these types of arrangements—known as “virtual duopolies”–now exist in at least 83 markets. The National Association of Broadcasters argues that these arrangements benefit communities by allowing financially troubled stations to stay on the air and continue offering free programming. Public interest groups and some Democrats in Congress have urged the FCC to rein in these agreements, calling them an outright evasion of the existing ownership rules.67 The FCC is now considering whether these contractual arrangements should be subject to the single market ownership limits.68 (See News Content Section for more)

News Staff

Despite the dip in revenue in 2011, stations continued to hire. According to the annual RTDNA/Hofstra University survey, a third of news directors surveyed said they expected to add staff in 2011, ten times as many as expected to cut. Robert Papper, who conducts the survey, said it’s likely that total employment in the local TV news industry has now returned to the record level set before the recession. (See data section for more)

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Perhaps a better measure of change than total jobs is the median staff size. Papper’s 2010 data shows the overall median at 30, exactly where it was five years earlier. What has changed most markedly is the median staff size in the largest markets, up 16% since 2005.

 By contrast, small-market newsrooms have not grown at all.69 “We’re doing more with the same,” said Jim Morris, news director at WABI, the CBS affiliate in Bangor, Maine. While new technology has cut processing time, the work is constant, Morris said, with more news on the air, the web and mobile platforms. According to the latest survey of TV news managers, 28.6%of what stations post online is unique to the Web.70 “It used to be that newsgathering never ended,” Morris said. “Now, producing doesn’t end.”71

That difference may be subtle but it is also significant. The effort in local TV station newsrooms is now not simply reporting and producing broadcast news. Increasingly it is spent translating that reporting into content across multiple platforms.

Others see the same trend. Nonstop news production is the new reality, said Mark Toney of SmithGeiger. Toney says he believes most newsrooms have adjusted to it. “They’ve changed the culture, people are multitasking more and they’re more efficient,” he said. “I hope that’s not being Pollyanna-ish, but that’s what I see.”72

The change in the makeup of local news staffs is reflected in the number of stations, especially in larger markets, that now employ multimedia journalists, people who shoot, report, write and edit their own stories. The use of these “one-man bands” has increased steadily at a rate of about 3% or 4% a year, according to the annual RTDNA/Hofstra study, to the point that more than 8 in 10 newsrooms now use them at least some of the time. In the smallest markets, more than half the stations rely almost entirely on these solo journalists, but that has been the case for many years. What is new is the increasing use of these one-man bands in the top 50 markets. There more than two-thirds of stations said solo journalists were part of the mix in 2010 (the most recent year for which data are available).  And in the biggest markets, the top 25, more than 15% of stations said they mostly use solo journalists.73

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TV journalists haven’t just seen their job descriptions change. Some saw their jobs disappear as more stations entered into management agreements with former competitors. (See Ownership Section for more)  Belo, for example, shut down news operations at its Fox affiliate, KMSB, in Tucson, Ariz., and turned over news production to the Raycom-owned CBS affiliate, KOLD, which plans to add a morning newscast on KMSB. “The Tucson economy has not been good,” said Peter Diaz, president of Belo Media Operations. “The way we look at it, this move allows us to increase our news product that we couldn’t afford to do otherwise.”74

What happened in Tucson was just the latest cost-saving move by station owners seeking to keep news on the air but to spend less doing it.

In a few cases, consolidation led to some hiring. About a dozen people were hired in Boise when the ABC affiliate began producing news for the new Fox affiliate.79 The NBC affiliate in Knoxville, Tenn., hired 10 people to produce news for the Fox affiliate.80 In North Carolina, a local cable news outlet owned by Time Warner added seven people to produce newscasts for the ABC affiliate in Greensboro.81

More hiring is expected in 2012, at least in larger markets.  NBC is spending “tens of millions of dollars” to hire 130 people, increasing the total staff at the local stations it owns by more than 5%, according to Valeri Staab, president of the NBC-owned station group.82 Most of those stations added newscasts in 2011 to fulfill Comcast’s promise to regulators to increase the amount of local news when it acquired a majority stake in NBC earlier in the year. (See News Content Section for more) NBC also stretched its newsgathering budget by establishing partnerships between its owned and operated stations and nonprofit news organizations, including ProPublica.  NBC made donations to the nonprofits but would not disclose how much. “Our new partnerships will [give] us even more resources to enterprise stories that are important to our viewers in the communities we serve and [help] us offer even more diverse programming and viewpoints,” Staab said.83

Scripps Television ramped up its spending on news, especially for investigative journalism, adding reporters and producers at several of its stations. “It wasn’t research that said we should do this,” said Bob Sullivan, the vice president for content at the Scripps stations. But Scripps hopes that building investigative units will make their stations stand out in a crowded local TV marketplace. “We are not saying that we’re better than anyone else,” he said. “We’re just saying this is who we are.”84

But major staff increases will likely be the exception, not the rule. Brian Bracco of Hearst Television said: “I think we’re going to be prudent on a cost basis going forward. People are making sure they are hiring the right people for the right jobs, people able to work on multiple platforms, not just loading up.”85

News Content

As news pops up in more and more time slots, the average number of hours of news on local television stations continues to grow. In 2010, the latest year for which data exist, it hit a record of five hours and 18 minutes each weekday in 2010. And there’s every reason to expect that 2011 set yet another record. (See data section for more)

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The trend of starting morning news earlier also has picked up steam. According to Nielsen data, stations in 104 markets are now airing news at 4:30 a.m., up from 69 a year earlier. The new frontier is 4 a.m., and not just on the coasts where long commutes force many people to leave home before dawn.  Stations in St. Louis,86 Chicago87 and Indianapolis,88 among others, added an extra-early half-hour of morning news in 2011.

WXIN in Indianapolis, for example, now airs a six-hour local morning news block from 4 to 10 a.m., plus two hours of news starting at 4 p.m. and an hour at 10 p.m. “We joke that we should have a billboard saying, ‘Fox 59 News: We’re Probably On Right Now,’ ” news director Lee Rosenthal joked.89

Midday newscasts made a comeback at some stations in 2011, even though news in that time slot has shown little evidence that it can grow an audience. (See Audience Section for more) Valeri Staab, president of the NBC-owned station group, argued that these midday programs also are a positive development from a journalistic standpoint. They keep a newsroom sharp, she contended. “It is too big of a break between 7 a.m. and 5 or 6 [p.m.],” she said. “The newsroom isn’t armed and ready for breaking news or breaking weather. A station does a better overall job of news if it keeps that wheel going.”90

In a few markets, stations are beginning to offer local newscasts on their second digital channels. Brian Bracco, vice president for news at Hearst Television, whose station in Manchester, N.H., launched a 10 p.m. newscast on its digital multicast channel in January 2012, said, “It’s fresh [and] serves different communities [of viewers].”91

Not all in the industry are sold on this. NBC, for instance, abandoned its highly promoted experiment to launch local news and information digital multicast channels in each of the markets where it owns local stations. The network now plans to provide stations with a national feed with time for local news cut-ins.92

One other trend that is more clearly growing is news sharing, or providing content to other media outlets once possibly seen as competitors. This has become commonplace. More than three-quarters of all TV stations provide local news to other media, according to the RTDNA/Hofstra University survey. Local radio outlets are the most common partners, involving just under half of the stations surveyed. And about a third of television news directors said they provide news for another local or nearby TV station.93

The implication of the increase in news time and the availability of news on additional stations is that viewers have more distinct local TV news options to choose from. But a major FCC report released in 2011 said almost a quarter of TV stations air no local news at all.94 And new research found that at least some of the stations that do air local news offer little more than reused material from another station, so that in the end there is actually less original content for viewers to choose from.

The study by the University of Delaware found that stations in eight markets with shared services agreements did not deliver unique content most of the time.95 “For the most part, you have an overlap where the same stories appear on two stations,” said Danilo Yanich, a researcher at the University of Delaware’s Center for Community Research and Service, “and the overlap is mostly script and video — a different person saying the exact same words.”96

Hofstra’s Robert Papper said the study’s conclusions are limited because in most of the markets studied an existing newsroom was eliminated. In the vast majority of cases where one station produces news that airs on another, “stations that never ran news are running it now and offering viewers a convenience,” Papper said.

Stations are not just producing news for other media outlets. Well over half the stations surveyed (59%) also cooperate with other local TV stations, newspapers, radio stations or other outlets in news gathering or coverage. That’s exactly the same percentage as the year before, but the amount of sharing was up sharply. In every category, the percentage of stations sharing more than doubled from 2009 to 2010. This suggests these arrangements have outlasted the experimental stage and are becoming ingrained in the local TV news culture.

SEE FULL DATA SET

What is harder to calculate is the impact on the journalism of having less time to work on each story because of the demands of constant production and the growth in the number of hours of news. Research from PEJ earlier in the decade found that more time to work on stories was associated with ratings growth. But time may be a luxury that local TV newsrooms simply no longer can afford in the age of digital news.

Digital Content

More than two-thirds of local stations surveyed in 2010 said they take a three-screen approach to news production, sharing it on TV, online and on mobile devices. One question some industry professionals raise is why that number wasn’t higher. It did not budge from the year before, despite an improved economy and clear evidence that today’s news consumers get local information from multiple sources, including smartphones and tablets.  Since virtually every television station that produces local news now has a website, the data imply that the local TV industry remained behind other competitors in 2010 when it came to distributing news on mobile devices.

Some in the industry believe that may have changed somewhat in 2011. “People will look back at 2011 and say, ‘That was the year we got it,’ ” said Jerry Gumbert of AR&D.97

Some local stations already have tapped new audiences and new revenue streams with mobile apps and social media. The NBC affiliate in Orlando, Fla., WESH, for example, offered updates on the Casey Anthony trial via a 99-cent smartphone app that became an iTunes best-seller.98 The station also launched a dedicated Facebook page that picked up more than 275,000 followers, six times as many as the main WESH page on Facebook.99 The Fox station in Los Angeles, KTTV, took a similar approach during the trial of Dr. Conrad Murray in the death of Michael Jackson.100

Social media also became a more important platform for many local TV stations during severe weather in 2011. KOMU in Columbia, Mo., used its Facebook page to help coordinate the response to the tornado that devastated Joplin in May.101 Stations along the East Coast, including WWBT in Richmond, Va., posted regular social media updates on Hurricane Irene to reach people without power who could not watch its nonstop TV coverage. “That’s a leap forward over anything I saw last year,” said Mark Toney of SmithGeiger.102

There are indications that local TV’s use of social media will grow even more, partly due to collaboration with outside vendors. Ten major broadcast groups, which between them own 200 stations, will launch a broader social media effort in 2012 in partnership with ConnecTV, a web and mobile service that allows users to interact with viewers watching the same programs. Roger Keating, senior vice president for digital at Hearst Television, one of the groups involved, calls the move a departure for local broadcasters, who up to now have focused on developing their own apps for specific local programs or channels. “We wanted as local broadcasters to find a way to really encourage and enhance the dialogue around our shows in a real-time basis,” he said.103

Some expectations for 2011 didn’t materialize. Some broadcasters expected 2011 to be a breakout year for mobile broadcast television, but it did not happen. A coalition of a dozen major broadcast groups is still working on plans to broadcast free digital signals to portable devices. “We’ll have local broadcasts on smartphones in the not-too-distant future,” Hearst’s Brian Bracco predicted.

But apparently hurdles remain, including how to measure usage for advertising purposes, how to manage rights fees for sports events and other programs, and how to persuade device manufacturers to install TV broadcast receivers.104 Some observers say it could be at least another year before those problems are worked out.105

In the meantime, broadcasters are looking for other ways to offer video that is as mobile as the audience. Scripps-owned stations in nine markets now offer a free mobile app that can deliver live streaming content to smartphones and tablets during breaking news or severe weather.106

The ability to watch live, local television on handsets could have a substantial impact on the future of the industry. SmithGeiger’s Mark Toney said, “You read gloom and doom about the demise of broadcast, but research says consumption may double when it’s able to be seen on mobile devices.”107

Continue reading Local TV: By the Numbers

Endnotes

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