2007 State of the News Media Report - Local TV
24-Hour Local and Regional News Networks
Local cable news networks are a small but growing competitor on the news landscape.
They emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the great promise of offering in-depth and immediate coverage of local issues often missed or ignored by traditional local TV news. Some of the biggest cable distributors entered the business — notably Time Warner Cable, Cablevision, Comcast Corp., Bright House Networks and Cox Communications Inc. — as did big-name companies in broadcasting such as Tribune Broadcasting, Hearst-Argyle Television and Belo Corp.
By 1993 local cable news channels had enough of a presence to create their own association—the Association for Regional News Channels (ARNC). According to the Association, there are 42 local and regional news channels across the nation, including 10 of the top 20 television markets.1
Just what is a local cable news network? It is a local (for example, perhaps, serving one county or adjacent counties or regional (spanning one or more states) network that airs local news and information including traffic and weather updates 24 hours a day. Unlike local news on the broadcast channels, viewers have to subscribe to a cable system to get the programming. In effect, the local cable channels are like a local CNN.
Programming on the channels is defined by the area they cover and the interests of the audience. Very often, these 24-hour news channels attract their audiences by covering events in detail that otherwise would not get any reporting. Often stories are re-run at different times during the day.
According to an extensive study conducted by the Radio & Television News Directors Foundation (RTNDF) in 2004,2 most are owned and operated by either a cable or media content company.
Cablevision owns the News 12 operations that began on Long Island, and now also operate in Brooklyn, Hudson Valley, the Bronx, Westchester ( New York) and parts of Connecticut. One of Time Warner’s operations is New York 1, in Manhattan. New York 1 was one of the first 24-hour local news stations when it launched in 1992. It serves the five boroughs of New York City and has developed a strong presence since then. Its defining moment came in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, when it covered the story with a local perspective much longer than other news channels.
The 24-hour news operations owned and operated by media content companies usually form a small part of the owner’s main news and information ventures. Examples include Albritton Communications’ NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C. area; Chicago’s CLTV, owned by the Tribune Company; and Belo’s NorthWest Cable News. That last, based in Seattle, is a regional news network covering Washington, Idaho and Oregon. It draws on the resources of Belo’s broadcast TV stations in those states.
One of the most successful and highly regarded is New England Cable News (NECN). A regional news network, NECN launched in 1992 and is a joint venture of the Hearst Corporation and Comcast. The channel is one of the bigger operations in the field, with original programming, an experienced newsroom staff, and more than 3 million subscribers in the six New England states.3 It also has a steady audience. In the February 2006 sweeps, NECN’s cumulative audience made it the No. 5 cable network in the Boston market, behind ESPN but way ahead of CNN, Fox News Channel and other national news services.4
The Top Five Local Cable News Channels
Source: George Winslow, "Moving Beyond Local News," MultiChannel News, July 12, 2006
While 24-hour local news channels aren’t yet a major threat to the established Local TV stations and newspapers, they are making inroads in their markets, and traditional broadcasters realize that they no longer have the monopoly over reporting what’s happening in their hometowns first.
What Sets Them Apart?
How do such stations create a niche in an already competitive local news market and also manage to fill 24 hours with local news? In an early look at the field in 1999, the Radio & Television News Directors Foundation found that the channels try many different techniques to make their mark.5 Three specific techniques stand out.
Partnerships: One technique is to form a partnership with leading local newspapers. That is mutually beneficial — the TV stations benefit by getting content from experienced journalists and the newspaper can promote itself to suburban cable subscribers. Examples of such partnerships include New England Cable News, which has a tie-in with the Boston Globe; NewsChannel 8, which features reporters and editors from the Washington Post; and News 12 New Jersey, which has a similar tie-in with the Newark Star-Ledger.
Time-Shifting: Another common technique on these channels is “time-shifting,” or re-runs. Repeating a newscast or feature that has been taped earlier is common practice on cable channels — it gives the audience a second chance to see a program, but it also fills the time while the station prepares new programming. Washington’s NewsChannel 8 actually has a tie-in with ABC News to re-broadcast ABC programs after they have aired on the network and the network affiliate.
Hyper-Localism: Finally, the 24-hour local channels make the most of a hyper-local focus on news. Most local affiliate stations are housed in city centers. The cable channels try and go even more local, to particular neighborhoods or ‘under the radar’ areas, or more in-depth, covering a local story in far more detail and with more time. For example, New York 1 has a dedicated weekly program called ‘In Transit’ that focuses only on stories relating to the city’s mass transit system. New England Cable News is known for its in-depth documentaries.6
Most of the channels run tight ships — avoiding costly labor-intensive reporting and closely monitoring operating expenses. That is especially important for the many systems in communities that don’t have enough subscribers to make the channels economically viable from that revenue source.7
Their main source of revenue is advertising — and just like their product, it is often hyper-local. The channels attract small, local advertisers who only want to reach out to their specific geographic area, and charge lower rates than the advertisers would have to pay for national or local broadcast ads. That includes political advertising, since the cable channels provide ideal platforms for candidates who need to reach only a specific community or local area.
Some of the bigger channels and regional news networks aim even higher. With the help of nationwide ad-sales organizations such as the National Cable Communications (NCC) co-owned by Time Warner, Comcast and Cox, such channels are also drawing a number of national advertisers. The channels stress their growing market coverage, upscale and dedicated audiences. They've brought in major automotive, financial, fast-food, retail and other accounts.8
On the flip side, the channels are taking multiple steps to cut costs in the newsroom. One way they save money is in salaries, which tend to be much lower than at broadcast stations — often as low as half those of traditional TV station newsrooms. In 1998, the Columbia Journalism Review reported that the cable channels hire young journalists, willing to work for lower salaries, with the hope that the experience will build them a reputation in the local news market.9
Another way they make their operations more efficient is by using technology. As early as 1998, Cablevision added digital gadgetry to its News 12 Group that enabled just one person to run a station’s control room.10 Time Warner has also invested heavily in digital production systems for its newsrooms and promotes “video journalists” — individuals who both report and shoot the story.
Despite their growth, the 24-hour local cable channels are relatively small in number and face a number of challenges.
One challenge is the Internet. Like all television news operations, the cable news channels realize that viewers are moving online to get up-to-date local news. And in an attempt to catch them there, many of the cable operations are building and promoting their Web sites — much like their broadcast counterparts.
All the top cable channels now have well developed Web sites, with audio-video capabilities, but whether they are attracting visitors is not clear.
Even more than the world of online news consumption, the biggest challenge may be the changing format of broadcast news stations. All television sets are expected to switch from analog to digital transmission by 2009 (see Digital sub-chapter for developments). When that occurs, all television stations in the country will have more spectrum space. In other words, they can multi-cast more than one stream of programming simultaneously—and one of those streams could be local news and information. With their bigger and richer news operations, broadcasters may be able to easily add-on round-the-clock local news. Not only do they have the infrastructure to increase their local news coverage and enough content for time-shifting, but they also have the more direct advantage of attracting viewers who don’t want to pay for cable.
1. For a list of local cable news channels, See the ARNC channel directory, Online at: http://www.newschannels.org/Members.html
2. Radio & Television News Directors Foundation, “A Look at Regional News Channels and State Public Affairs Networks,” RTNDF, 2004; Online at: http://www.rtnda.org/resources/cable.pdf
3. Hearst Corporation Fact Sheet on New England Cable News, available online at: http://www.hearstcorp.com/entertainment/property/ent_cable_newengland.html
4. George Winslow, “Moving Beyond Local News,” MultiChannel News, July 12, 2006
5. Radio & Television News Directors Foundation, “Non Stop News: A Study on Regional News Networks,” 1999. Available on the RTNDA Web site at: http://www.rtnda.org/resources/nonstopnews/index.html
6. Radio & Television News Directors Foundation, “A Look at Regional News Channels and State Public Affairs Networks,” RTNDF, 2004
7. David Lieberman, “The Rise and Rise of 24-Hour Local News,” Columbia Journalism Review, November/December 1998
8. In 2004, New England Cable News (NECN), one of the oldest regional news networks, expected to close the year with about 12% growth in ad revenues, double its previous year's sales. NECN targets a range of “non-traditional TV advertisers,” including smaller banks, insurance companies, utilities, health insurers and law firms. Alan Breznick, “Boom and Gloom at News Channels,” Broadcasting & Cable, November 11, 2004
9. See David Lieberman, “The Rise and Rise of 24-Hour Local News,” Columbia Journalism Review, November/December 1998; also Mike Cavender, “Local Cable News Comes of Age,” RTNDA Communicator, November 2004
10. David Lieberman, “The Rise and Rise of 24-Hour Local News,” Columbia Journalism Review, November/December 1998