October 25, 2006

Is Election News M.I.A. on Local TV?

Time (in seconds)
Advertising 607
Sports & Weather 421
Crime 147
Local Interest 121
Non-campaign Govt. News 66
Health 64
Business, Economy 62
Election Coverage 36
Foreign Policy 23
Unintentional Injury 11

In this hotly contested election year – with control of Congress up for grabs – how much political news are heartland viewers getting on local television?

About a half minute per newscast, according to a recent University of Wisconsin study. The report, which examined three dozen local television stations in nine Midwestern markets from Sept.7 through Oct. 8, found that the stations devoted an average of only 36 seconds in each 30-minute newscast to election coverage. That contrasts with about 10 minutes of advertising, seven minutes of sports and weather, and about two-and-a half-minutes of crime news.

The study also found that there were several topics that received less attention than election coverage, including foreign policy (23 seconds) and accidents/disasters (11 seconds.)

Larry Hansen, vice president of the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation—which funded the study by the University of Wisconsin’s NewsLab—said he was disappointed with the results, particularly because voters tend to rely on local television as their primary source of information about elections. (In a July survey from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 54% of the respondents said they regularly watch local TV news, making it the most popular news platform.)

“What this study indicates to me is at a time when most people watch the news, this particular institution is falling down on the job,” Hansen said. (The Joyce Foundation subsidizes public policy research related to the Great Lakes Region.)

The study examined up to one hour per night of the early and late evening broadcasts on 36 NBC, CBS, ABC and FOX affiliates in nine major Midwestern markets: Chicago and Springfield Illinois, Detroit and Lansing Michigan, Minneapolis/St. Paul Minnesota, Cleveland and Columbus Ohio, and Madison and Milwaukee Wisconsin.

Some cities fared better than others. Stations in Madison, for example, spent an average of one minute and five seconds on election news. At the other end of the spectrum were Springfield and Detroit, which devoted only 21 and 22 seconds to the subject, respectively.

The National Association of Broadcasters, a trade organization that represents television stations, was highly critical of the survey’s methodology. The group argued that it was incomplete and inaccurate since it failed to include debates, morning news, noon news, and mid-afternoon news as well as public affairs and weekend programming in its sample. The organization also argued that candidates for public office frequently reject broadcasters’ offers of free airtime.

“This is a bogus study from a group with a biased agenda,” said National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) spokesman Dennis Wharton in a statement.

Defending the methodology of its study, the NewsLab noted that while it did not examine all the local newscasts in the nine markets, it did sample “some of the highest rated programming” in a number of major and capitol cites. Responding to NAB’s criticism in a brief interview, NewsLab project director Tricia Olsen said: “We’re simply reporting the numbers.”