October 1, 2000

Local TV News Project 2000

Magic Formula

Is there a special recipe for building ratings? The data show there are some key elements — across all stations and across all years — that we can now say are key steps in serving viewers. Interestingly, they are also steps to quality. Two we've outlined above:

  • Cover more of the community.
  • Produce more longer stories and fewer very short stories.

In addition, four other key steps to building ratings are clear from the data over three years:

  • Focus more stories around the major public and private institutions in town.
  • Do fewer stories targeted at demographic subsets of your audience.
  • Use fewer sources who are anonymous or referred to only in passing.
  • Send a reporter, not just a camera crew, to cover stories. Viewers seem to prefer hearing the latest events from reporters on the scene rather than listening to anchors providing voiceovers for canned footage.

Other steps build ratings, depending on which style of news a station wants to pursue — high quality or more racy tabloid.

Each year we have broken good stations from the most popular time slot in each city into two groups: "Master" stations are those with high quality (A or B grades) and rising ratings (one or two up arrows). "Earnest" stations have A or B grades and declining ratings (down arrows; charts, pp. 89, 90-92).

In addition to the six ideas above, master stations over three years share these other qualities. They:

  • Air fewer crime stories.
  • Air more local stories.
  • Do more investigative work, news series and tough interviews.
  • Use less feed material.
  • Air more person-on-the street interviews.
  • Do less horse-race-style political coverage.

As we have already pointed out, stations can use a "down-market" strategy to seize viewers' attention and win their loyalty. But our data on audience retention shows that across the board, low-quality stations lose viewers from their lead-in, while our best stations were more likely to be keeping viewers over time. The down-market approach may work, but it may not have as much staying power.

Another interesting discovery over three years is that there seem to be no set criteria for winning ratings using a down-market approach. Except for the things that help any station win ratings — like doing more long stories and using fewer anonymous sources — we can find no common characteristics among the down-market stations with rising ratings that hold over three years.

The implication is that the success of the tabloid approach is somewhat haphazard.

We can identify reliable ways to build ratings with quality. We cannot over three years quantify reliable ways to build ratings with a tabloid or low-quality approach.

Three-Year Markets

We have studied thirteen stations now for three years. In general, these stations have become more locally relevant and now cover more of their communities than they did three years ago. Most have also shown notable improvement in giving different points of view in their stories. One of the most disturbing findings all along in this study, and one that has bothered practitioners, has been the one-sidedness of so much of the news. Whether these improvements are the result of being scrutinized we have no idea.

But the commonalities end there. Some stations have improved and begun to gain market share, like Minneapolis's WCCO. Some have slipped in quality and viewers, like Minneapolis's KARE. And some have both improved in quality and lost in viewers, like New York's WABC.

There is one other generalization we can make. Ratings for these stations over a five-year trend show what every general manager already knows. Most of these stations, like local TV news in general, are seeing their audience shrink.