November 1, 2002

Local TV News Project 2002

Viewers Keep Disappearing

By Todd Belt

Considering the nature of the marketplace, the job of a local TV news director today may seem like a losing battle. In a world of expanding technology and declining interest in news among young people, viewers are becoming ever more scant. In 1998, our first year of studying the ratings trends of local newscasts, two thirds of the stations in our study were experiencing declines in viewership. By 2002, that number had increased to 76%. Between November 2000 and November 2001, when the aftermath of September 11th dominated the airwaves, local news viewership fell seven percent even while network news gained viewers.

But the viewership declines are not the same across the board: there are differences by network affiliation, market size, and time slot.

To begin with, one of the three major networks – ABC – is experiencing bigger ratings losses than its competitors. In our sample, 82% of stations affiliated with ABC lost viewers, compared with 72% of those affiliated with CBS and 70% of those with NBC. One strong possibility for this decline is the well-publicized problems ABC has had in prime time since its acquisition by Disney in 1996.

The second trend we found was that stations in larger markets were more likely to be losing viewers than those in smaller markets. Dividing the country into four parts according to market size, we found that in the top fourth, comprising the eight largest markets, 78% of stations are losing viewers. In the second-largest markets, the figure is 80%. But in the next size category, the number of stations losing viewers drops to 70%. And in the nation's smallest markets, the figure is 64%.

One partial explanation may be that larger percentages of households subscribe to cable in the larger markets, meaning there is more competition.

Nonetheless, as news directors work their way up to larger markets where the stakes of their decisions are greater, their problems are compounded because the competition isgreater.

Finally, late-evening newscasts were more likely to be losing viewers than early-evening programs. In our sample, 76% of newscasts airing in 10 or 11 p.m. time slots lost viewers, compared to 71% at 5 or 6 p.m. Perhaps not coincidentally, the later newscasts were found to suffer from lower quality, as well. On the other hand, people may simply be going to bed earlier and watching the early morning news instead on the late evening broadcast.

As it has been for several years, now, the news isn't pretty anywhere in local television these days. The news director who really has it tough? The one who runs an ABC affiliate in a big city, charged with trying to turn things around on the 11 p.m. news.

Todd Belt is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Southern California.