April 29, 2003

Does Ownership Matter in Local Television News?

Timeslot, Diversity, and Ratings

Timeslot, Diversity, and Ratings

Timeslot Makes A Difference

One question about the data is whether differences in timeslot might alter the results. Over the five years of study, we have found a consistent tendency for early evening newscasts to be stronger than late night. Generally, 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. newscasts-those preceding prime time-tend to be stronger journalistically than 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts-those following prime time. Since we compared stations at the highest-rated timeslot for news in each city-comparing 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. programs to 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts together-we wondered if that might be skewing the findings about ownership.

To find out, we decided to examine the data within timeslots-comparing late newscasts, those following prime time, to each other and early newscasts (5 p.m. and 6 p.m.) to each other.

Late Newscasts

In late news, the tendency of smaller owners to produce better newscasts actually became stronger.

  • · The smallest owners were 16 times as likely as the largest owners and three times as likely as the next 15 largest companies to receive "A's" in their late news (33% versus 2% at top ten, and 11% at both the next 15 largest and mid-sized).1
  • · In late news, none of the smallest owners earned "F" grades, compared with at least 6% to as high as 15% in the other size groups.
Late-Night Newscasts:
Size of Corporate Owner and Quality Grade
A
2%
11%
11%
33%
B
26
14
33
33
C
43
41
28
17
D
23
19
17
17
F
6
15
11
Total
100%
100%
100%
100%

Early Newscasts

Earlier in the day, we did see a change. Here the stations in the largest ownership category tended to outperform the smaller companies.

  • Four-in-ten of top ten owned stations (39%) received an "A" in the early hours, versus a nearly three-in-ten of the smallest owned. (27%), and that was true of 26% of mid-sized stations, and 15% of stations from the 11-25 biggest companies.2
  • The biggest company stations were also more likely to receive "B's" than smaller stations at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m.
  • The largest owned stations also received no "F's" at this hour-along with the mid-sized-compared with 5% of the second-largest group of companies and 9% at the smallest group.
Early-Evening Newscasts:
Size of Corporate Owner and Quality Grade
A
39%
15%
26%
27%
B
44
55
37
37
C
11
15
21
18
D
6
10
16
9
F
5
9
Total
100%
100%
100%
100%

The differences are important. For one thing, it means that while smaller companies outperform larger ones overall, this is not true across the board.

Second, larger companies are capable of producing higher quality newscasts. Yet for some reason, they often fail to do that when the most people are watching.

Some broadcasters believe that late news needs to be quite different than early news-faster paced, more headlines, more quick stories. Yet the data we have gathered and interviews we have done with news professionals make it clear that there is a difference of opinion about this.

The research also clearly finds that late newscasts generally are losing more viewers than early newscasts, and the lower quality in general of these late newscasts may certainly be an important factor.

If it is conventional wisdom among some broadcast professionals that late news needs to be flashier, the numbers across the industry seem to suggest this is a mistake.

What does all this mean about the size of ownership? It suggests quality is not out of reach for large companies. There is nothing endemic, in other words, that prohibits these larger companies from better serving the public interest. Indeed, some of the very best newscasts we have seen come from some large companies in early timeslots.

But these companies, with broader resources than their smaller competitors, have chosen for whatever reasons not to provide that quality to citizens across the day, and even when the largest number of viewers are watching. The number of big companies that choose to produce quality in late night (2%) is strikingly low.

Other Ownership Categories and Timeslot

What about other categories of ownership at different timeslots? Here the data are less helpful. The data, for instance, includes only four O&O's in the early timeslot and seven locally owned stations in the early timeslot. Those category sizes are too small to draw any conclusions from. The same was true for cross-ownership stations.

Diversity And Ownership

The PEJ study over the last five years also examined the diversity of sources in local news by race and ethnicity. Who was represented on camera as experts, for instance, versus perpetrators of crimes?

This data on diversity has never been released before. Diversity is not a factor in a station's quality score and thus was not a component of the earlier Project for Excellence in Journalism Local TV Study. We collected the data with the intention of releasing it at a later date in conjunction with another analysis. We still plan on that. However, the FCC has indicated that diversity is one of the subjects it considers relevant to its inquiry. In light of that, we decided to release whatever findings we had about ownership diversity right now.

Does the size of the company have any impact on the diversity of sources?

The answer appears to be no.

Across ownership size, O&O versus affiliate, local versus non-local, and cross-owned stations versus others, we saw little difference in the presence of minorities on camera according to the type of station owner.

This is not to say everything in the area of diversity in local news is fine. Overall, only 12% of all stories included a minority on camera as the subject of a story, an expert or a person on the street.

Another two percent of stories featured minorities as victims of crime or suspected perpetrators of crime.

Across the five-years of data, moreover, certain subjects and persons were strikingly absent. In 23,806 stories analyzed, for instance, only .2 percent, or 32 stories, concerned the poor. Only .3 percent of stories, or 57 overall, concerned the elderly.

By contrast, more than 500 were stories about celebrities.

Ownership And Ratings

Does one type of owner tend to succeed better in ratings than another?

The study does not look at ratings in their simplest form, but measures economic success by looking at ratings trends: is a newscast's audience growing or shrinking? We do so by collecting three years of ratings-12 ratings books-and developing a trend line.

Here we found that ownership type does seem to play a part in the ratings trends of stations.

Ratings Performance and Size of Corporate Owner
Improving
52%
41%
27%
43%
Flat
16
17
19
35
Declining
32
42
54
22
Total
100%
100%
100%
100%

Overall, positive ratings trends were more likely at the biggest companies and O&O's.

Interestingly, this is not the list of owners who produce the best quality.

For whatever reasons, the very largest companies had a greater ability to generate positive ratings trends-or a lower tolerance for negative ratings trends-than did smaller companies. But they also have a much higher tolerance for producing low quality.

This tendency is at odds with the overall findings of the Project's study of local television news over the last five years. That study found that quality was the path most likely to lead to ratings success.

The ability of larger companies to generate ratings success while producing lower-quality content thus raises another concern if the ownership rules are lifted.

It suggests allowing large corporations to own more and more stations would encourage lower quality in local television news. These companies already show less of a commitment to quality, and economies of scale raise the possibility they will extend this format to new acquisitions.

1 In the original report, small-owned stations were cited as 20 times more likely as the largest owners and 6 times as likely as the next 15 largest to receive "A" grades in this category.

2 In the original report, top ten groups receiving "A"s were listed at 32% and small groups receiving "A"s were listed at 20%. In the updated version, the percentages changed slightly, but the range between the two remains the same.