The Shrinking Local News Audience
TV tries to win back vanishing viewers.
By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.
IT'S NO SECRET that the audience for local television news is shrinking. Stations around the country are hemorrhaging viewers and TV news executives are worried, with good reason. In the past five years, the number of Americans who say they regularly watch local television news has declined by more than 20 percent, according to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Why are more and more people tuning out? Is there anything that could turn the tide and make them tune back in?
If those questions sound almost desperate, it's because the stakes are so high and the game so different from a few years ago. Remember when the competition was another station's newscast? Now it's not only cable and the Internet, it's work schedules and traffic jams. The most common reason people give for not watching local TV news is that they just don't have the time. They're not home when the early evening news is on or they're asleep when the late news comes on. And even if they're near a TV set at news time, they say they're just too busy to watch. Ask these people what could bring them back, and their answer is simple: │Put the news on at a different time.▓
That request might once have seemed impossible to fulfill, but no longer. In Austin, Texas, the Fox station, KTBC, scrapped its 10 p.m. newscast in August and moved it back an hour, going head-to-head with entertainment programs on the other networks. In Atlanta, NBC station WXIA has launched a 9 p.m. newscast on local cable. And in Knoxville, Tennessee, the CBS affiliate, WLVT-TV, has added a 7 p.m. newscast to its regular news lineup, in a bid to attract those too-busy viewers. "If we can come on at an hour when nobody else is doing [live] news," says Desiree Landers, WLVT's news director, "we can get a share of the audience that's been running around and hasn't been able to catch a newscast yet."
Other stations are seeking an audience by re-running newscasts at different times. One of WLVT's competitors in Knoxville, NBC affiliate WBIR, rebroadcasts its 6 p.m. newscast on a cable channel right up until the 11 p.m. news. The NBC affiliates in Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia air their local 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts a half-hour to an hour later on the independent Paxson stations.
But simply shifting the same old newscast to a different time probably won't be enough to win back the audience. Many viewers have tuned out the local news because it turns them off. They're annoyed by the tricks and gimmicks stations use to try to make them watch. Take live reports, for instance. A new study by Charles Tuggle of the University of North Carolina and Suzanne Huffmann of Texas Christian University finds that viewers aren't fooled by live reports that hit the air with great fanfare hours after the story is over. In fact, viewers find the whole notion of "live for the sake of live" condescending and a waste of time. "There are times when it's just goofy, and the viewers see that," says Tuggle, "and they think we're doing them a disservice."
Viewers also are ill served by much of the content of local newscasts, and they know it. They're repelled by the relentlessly negative tone of too many stories and flat-out bored by others. They don't see much news on local television that relates to their lives.
Research by NewsLab, Insite Media and others suggests that the answer to winning back viewers isn't all that complicated. Viewers expect local television news to tell them what's happening in their community. Maybe there's a lesson in the success of truly hyper-local news, like the coverage provided by cable station News 13 in Nelson County, Kentucky. No fancy production, no Chopper 13--just a straight-ahead 30-minute newscast, airing nightly on the hour from 6 to 11 p.m. Louisville's Courier-Journal calls its mix of city council/school board/sports coverage (that even includes elementary school flag football) "the sort of news that small-town Kentuckians have traditionally gabbed about at lunch counters, on street corners and on neighbors' porches." The potential audience is tiny: Just 8,300 people subscribe to the cable service that provides the newscast. But in a reversal of real-world logic, the smaller the target, the easier it is to hit.
If stations that spend their resources on "localized" imported sweeps features and gimmicky live shots are losing viewers--and they are--might they not find a measure of success by actually covering local news and airing those newscasts when people can watch them? Sure, it would take more work, and maybe even more money. But consider the potential consequences of staying the course, and it starts to make a lot of sense.