Local TV Audience
2006 Annual Report
Heading into 2006, the outlook for local TV news audiences was mixed, but not altogether bad. The decline in early evening news audiences, which seemed to abate in 2004, resumed in 2005. And in a cause for concern, morning news, the perceived growth area of local TV, declined as well. But the data also suggest that late news saw marked increases and could now be a place of promise.
Analyzing local news is not as clear-cut as with other news media. No overall measurement of the local news market exists. Audiences are measured station-by-station, market-by-market, which makesit difficult to make get a broad sense of the industry. There is enough information, however, to arrive at some general conclusions.1
To gauge audience, the TV industry uses two metrics — share and ratings. Share indicates the percentage of the television sets in use that are tuned to a program at a given time — or something akin to market share. If 500 television sets are turned on in Orlando and 250 are tuned to the 7 p.m. news hour on WKCF-TV, then the station gets a 50 share for that slot. Ratings, on the other hand, step back a level and indicate the percentage of households tuned to a program out of all households with television sets — not just those in use but also those that are turned off. In the same example, if Orlando had 1,000 television sets in total, with 250 tuned to WKCF-TV, then WKCF-TV would get a rating of 25. The amount of share it occupies allows a station to see how it is performing versus the other stations in the local area. Ratings give a sense of the total audience and are used by advertisers to determine what price they are willing to pay for an ad on the particular program.2
To get a sense of overall trends, we gathered audience data for 529 network-affiliated stations collected by BIAfn for both early evening and late newscasts.3 We then calculate averages for each time slot, combining them into a national average. The data, going back to 1997, also allow us to make comparisons year to year.4
Early Evening News
The early evening news time slot, traditionally the newscast of record in the Eastern Time zone, has seen increasing pressure from changing lifestyles, longer commutes, and greater competition for people’s time from everything from homework to iPods to more channels on the TV dial.
In 2005, early-evening news share continued to decline. The drop, however, came at a slower rate than we had seen from 1997 through 2003.
The average share of the viewing audience tuned to network affiliate local news programs fell to 15.6, down from 15.9 in 2004. That decline of 1.9% was slightly greater than the 1.2% fall a year earlier but remained a smaller rate of decline than early evening news had been seeing.
Between 1997 and 2003, early-evening local news programs lost 16% of their share of the available audience — or an average drop of more than 3% a year. That steady decline slowed down in 2004, but hopes that the slowdown would lead to a halt in the decline proved overly optimistic. Of those watching TV between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. in 2005, fewer and fewer were turning to the traditional local news shows.
The picture for early-evening newscasts gets even gloomier when one looks at ratings, the measure of the total number of households, as opposed to merely the share of those sets that are turned on.
The average ratings for early-evening news dropped by a startling 13% in 2005 across the stations studied. The average station had a 7.2 rating, down from 8.3 the year before. That drop is more than five times the 2004 figure of 1.7%.
Taken together, the ratings and share data offer a deeper sense of what is going on with local early-evening news. Of the people home and watching TV, somewhat fewer chose to watch local news than did a year earlier. But the most serious decline is in those who were watching TV at all.5
That could be the result of many factors, including changes in lifestyles. Fewer people are home this early anymore, but instead are still at the office, or facing longer commutes. As a result, TV stations now have a smaller potential audience at this time. The local late news may offer a better fit with people’s schedules today, which also speaks to the better numbers for late news.
For late news, the share of TV sets in use fell a little in 2005, but ratings — or total audience — actually rose.
The average share for late news, the half-hour newscasts that follow prime time programming, dropped by 1.6% in 2005 (to 18.3 from 18.6 in 2004). Again, this was significantly worse than the year before, when the late news share fell a mere 0.5%, from 18.7 to 18.6. It was much better, though, than the average drops of about three percent a year between 1997 and 2003.
As opposed to share, ratings for the late news improved slightly in 2005, increasing to 7.9, up from 7.4 in 2004, or nearly 7%. What’s more, the increase comes after late-news ratings had dropped for eight years, most recently with a 4% decline in 2004. That is especially important because the late local news has traditionally had the best demographics (younger viewers) and, thus, the highest advertising rates.
Local News in the Morning
If weather warnings have been posted for the early-evening news and the skies over late broadcasts are clearing, the forecast for the morning news — before 7 a.m. — is cloudy. The available data offer somewhat conflicting evidence of the climate. In the end, it may be that more people are watching news in the morning hours but are tuning in to the network shows rather than local ones.6
First, Nielsen Media’s data for the last year show smaller audiences in both ratings and share for local morning news programs. November figures in 2005 show a 6.7% decline in ratings and a 15% decline in share from 2004. If that is more than a one-year blip, it may represent a serious blow to the industry. Local morning news has been the growth area for most local TV news stations.7
Growth/ Decline in Ratings & Share
November 2004 to November 2005
Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
Personal-observation data collected in 2005 by the Center for Media Design at Ball State University suggests that the overall morning news audience — from 6 a.m. local news through the network morning shows that air from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. (in the case of NBC) — is now quite substantial.8
The data derived from Nielsen Media diaries, however, suggest that local morning news that is on from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. has a long way to go before it catches up with the ratings that local evening or late news generate. The morning news is still about half the size of those two time slots. In our previous report, BIAfn data (based on Nielsen Media diaries) from May 2004 indicated nationwide, the average morning news program earned 4.6 ratings points. That was just more than half (55%) of the ratings of the average evening news audience (8.3 ratings points) and 62% of the late news audience (7.4 ratings points).
Sorting out the situation in the morning may be critical, for morning news has been a particular focus of local news directors for a variety of reasons.
First, managers believe they have a clear sense of what viewers are looking for in the morning — namely weather and traffic and overnight headlines — and believe tailored news segments are meeting viewers’ needs. As one local station manager was quoted as saying, “It’s the radio of the new millennium with pictures. You can watch and get dressed, get your day going.”9 Unlike later newscasts, morning news is presented quickly and succinctly, and repeated often so viewers can dip in and leave.
At least some news directors also believe they enjoy more viewer loyalty in the morning. As one local station manager told the Orlando Sentinel, “It’s the only spot [where] you have a chance of reaching an audience you can count on. People are going to watch morning news [at least] three or four times a week.”10
The 5-to-7 a.m. time slot before the networks go on the air is also a large chunk of time controlled entirely by the local stations. So, while ad rates in these hours are still much lower than for evening programs, there are financial incentives. “Mornings are absolutely a critical time period,” said the general manager of WESH-TV in Orlando , Fla. “I’m not sharing any of [the] inventory with a network or a syndicator. It is two hours of local programming. I can make a lot of money in the mornings if I’m successful there.”
And stations can make that money without a huge investment. Certainly, they must pay the salaries of the anchors, weathercasters and perhaps a reporter or two, as well as a few behind-the-scenes people such as producers, directors and technicians. But the studios, the weather radar, the graphics and switching equipment, the cameras, the satellite and microwave trucks and the transmitter are capital items stations have already purchased and would probably need to buy whether they offered a local morning news show or not. A morning news broadcast allows a station to amortize those investments over two more hours of the local broadcast day with the flip of a few switches.