The state of local TV news

TV staticIf you just look at the bottom line, local TV stations appear to be thriving. Revenue was up substantially last year, thanks largely to a flood of political advertising. But viewership was down in every key time slot in every sweeps period in 2012, according to an analysis of Nielsen data by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. The annual State of the News Media report chapter on local TV, which I wrote, suggests the business faces rough waters ahead as it continues to lose customers for its primary product–local news over the air.

Local television news on the air suffered a reversal of fortune in 2012, losing audience in every key time slot, including those that gained viewers the year before. In most nontraditional time slots, viewership stagnated. And the total audience for all local news programs combined was smaller than the year before. The strategy of gaining viewers by adding more and more time for news appears to have stopped paying off.

Stations say their online, mobile and social media audience is growing rapidly, but much of the data on that is proprietary so it’s hard to get a handle on where things actually stand. And all the available evidence suggests that digital revenue is growing far more slowly.

Two related reports offer additional insights into the state of the news media in general and local TV in particular. According to a national survey, Americans appear to have noticed the effects of budget and staff cuts by local news organizations.

Nearly one-third—31%—of people say they have deserted a particular news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to.

What are local TV stations providing? A study of newscasts on eight stations in four markets finds less substance than ever. The vast majority of stories (80%) run less than a minute. About half run just 30 seconds.

When 2012 is compared with 2005, the amount of time devoted to edited story packages has decreased and average story lengths have shortened, signs that there is less in-depth journalism being produced. Traffic, weather and sports—the kind of information now available on demand in a variety of digital platforms—is making up an ever-larger component (40%) of the local news menu. Meanwhile, coverage of politics and government is down by more than 50%.

The good news on content? Crime and courts coverage is down significantly, from almost 30% of the news hole in 2005 to 17% last year, and coverage of the economy more than doubled, to about 8%.

Admittedly, it’s dangerous to draw conclusions from such a limited study, which looked only at morning and late newscasts, not the early evening programs most stations still consider their newscasts of record. And the earlier data was collected during sweeps periods, which may have tilted the results in terms of story length. But parts of the new study do have the ring of truth: everyone’s doing more live shots and getting less time to really tell a story.

What does all of this mean for the future? Stations are braced for the traditional non-election-year “hangover” in terms of lower revenue in 2013, so it’s unlikely they’ll be investing much more in news. They’ll be producing at least as much of it as ever, though. What will that mean for overall quality? You tell me.


TV static image via Shutterstock