November 1, 2001

Local TV News Project 2001

Where Have All the Viewers Gone?

By Carl Gottlieb and Todd Belt

Today in local television news few stations are gaining audience.

Winning is now a matter of beating the odds.

This year, in our sample of 43 stations, 77 percent are suffering ratings declines.

In our 1998 study, by comparison, that number was 66 percent, but it has been in the mid to high 70s ever since.

In the past, we talked about station ratings rising or falling. Today, it makes more sense to talk about "succeeding" or "failing." "Succeeding" stations have ratings trends better than the average; "failing" stations are doing worse than average.

If ratings are declining, where are viewers going? Are they abandoning TV news to watch something else, or are they no longer watching TV at all?

By comparing a station's ratings with its market share over time we are able to get an answer. If the share for news were falling faster than the ratings, that would mean people were tuning to another program. (Ratings measure the number of households watching a given station. Market share expresses ratings as a percentage of all households watching TV at the time.)

The evidence shows that local news is not losing its audience to other kinds of TV programs, even cable programming. TV news is losing out to other activities – the Internet, raising kids, commuting, working.

This finding confirms studies by our affiliate NewsLab, researchers at Indiana University, and the private company Insite Research. Their results suggest that people are turning away from local TV news because they find it repetitive, formulaic and superficial, and can get their local news more effectively from other sources.

Our data suggest that news directors who mold their news shows to resemble entertainment are making a mistake. That is not where their viewers are going. Turning news into entertainment will probably drive more viewers away.

But local TV news can't seem to break away from the belief that being like entertainment will boost numbers. Mimicking the prime-time entertainment schedules, celebrities and crime continue to be mainstays of local news, greatly outweighing coverage of civic institutions and leaders.

The ratings in New York demonstrate the folly of this strategy. There, coverage of celebrities has more than doubled between 1998 and 2001 and is now three times larger than the national average. Meanwhile, over the past three years, New York newscasts are losing audience faster than 78 percent of the late newscasts in other major markets in our survey.

Carl Gottlieb is deputy director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Todd Belt is a doctoral student in political science at the University of Southern California.