This won’t come as a huge surprise to anyone working in local TV news, but there’s more of it than ever and more people are watching.”To quote Mark Twain, ‘Reports of our death are greatly exaggerated,’” says Hearst Television’s vice president for news, Brian Bracco, in the 2012 State of the News Media report, issued today by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
After years of losing both audience and revenue, local stations have some reasons to celebrate. Viewership for both morning and late newscasts on network affiliates was up, on average, for the first time in five years. Audience growth was astronomical at 4:30 a.m. as the number of stations airing news that early doubled for the second year in a row. Quite a few stations pushed their start times even earlier, to 4 a.m., and said it’s paying off.
[WXIN-Indianapolis] News director Lee Rosenthal…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.”
A number of stations even had success adding news at 4 p.m. to replace Oprah. And independent stations gained viewers in every time slot except midday.
Local TV stations aren’t just growing audience for their on-air offerings but also for their online and social media products. In most of the biggest markets in the country, newspaper websites still outdraw local television sites. Greensboro, N.C., (DMA #46) is a rare exception where all three TV sites do better than the local paper. But change could be on the way.
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. Hofstra University’s Bob Papper, who surveys stations annually for RTDNA, says that’s a sign of things to come.
Newspaper paywalls are going to make that increasingly common, and TV stations are poised to be the biggest beneficiaries of those paywalls.
Local TV makes the vast majority of its money from broadcast advertising, and in 2011, stations made less. The decline was predictable for a non-election year and the forecast for 2012 is substantially brighter, with spending on both candidate and issue ads expected to set a new record.
Other sources of revenue for local stations are growing year after year: retransmission fees and online and mobile advertising. According to one study,television stations enjoyed the highest growth rate in online advertising of any medium. All of these revenue sources are still relatively small, however.
So is everything coming up roses for local TV? Not entirely. The one-time “newscast of record” in the early evening keeps losing viewers, on average, although the rate of decline has slowed. Across the board, the largest audience gains were in time slots with the smallest viewership. And a troubling trend appears to be continuing: share is outperforming ratings in early evening and late time slots. In other words, stations are drawing a larger share of a smaller audience, because fewer people are watching television at all when the news is on.
The long-term outlook isn’t entirely upbeat, either. As the economy improves, overall viewership could decline. “People in recessionary times watch more television,” said Jerry Gumbert, chief executive of the consulting firm AR&D. “We’ve seen that over 40 years.”
[Full disclosure: I’m the lead author of the local TV chapter in the 2012 State of the News Media Report.]