The New TV News Consumer
By Robert A. Papper
If you’ve been around this business long enough, you can remember when pundits said ABC, CBS and NBC were each going to go out of business. And when Fox couldn’t possibly succeed with a fourth network. And when cable couldn’t support one all-news channel. Or two. Or more. Just two or three years ago, they said local TV news would trim back to one or maybe two stations per market. Now, as Dan Rather leaves the CBS Evening News, we hear about the possible end of network news as we know it. Oh, yes, and the Internet is replacing television as the premier source of news.
As the keeper of the numbers in local television news, let me try to explain why none of those earlier predictions came true and why the latest ones probably won’t, either.
Start with money. Local news first. While I haven’t yet tallied the latest figures for the RTNDA/Ball State University Annual Survey, there are some immutable patterns in the numbers. Every year that I’ve done the research – 11 years now – more local stations have broadcast local news than the year before. Every year. That’s just counting individual local newsrooms. I’m not counting the many stations that now get news from others-most of which never used to run local news at all.
And with the possible exception of the retrenchment in the fourth quarter of 2000 in conjunction with the start of the last recession, local stations run more news each year than the year before. Frankly, that’s harder to track because many of the stations that start news from scratch do so on a smaller scale, which means they actually lower the average amount of news per station even as they increase the overall total.
But what about all those stations that dropped local news? Yes, a few did, and they got lots of attention. A lot more attention than the larger number of stations that started local news.
But, some argue, if you’re the third or fourth (or lower) news station in a market, why wouldn’t you just drop local news? Because it’s not about audience; it’s about money. News is a business, and ultimately, the point isn’t whether people watch one newscast more than another, it’s about whether any given newscast makes money, how much money it makes and whether – all things considered – the station could make more money running something else instead.
For stations that run news, including stations that barely run news, over 40 percent of revenue comes from local news. That figure has held remarkably steady for more than a decade, and it’s a huge number for any station to replace. And what’s at stake for stations isn’t just that money; there are some commercial buys that only go to stations that run news. No news, no buy.
On the network level, there are years when networks lose money and, recently, even more years when the networks’ owned stations have produced more profit than the networks themselves. But what do you think would happen to the profitability of those owned stations (and the value of the properties themselves) if the network disappeared?
The money in network news isn’t in the net revenues of the evening newscasts. On a strict cost-accounting basis, they might all lose money. For the last decade or so, it’s the news magazines and secondary news programs that have supported the network news operations. Again, what would happen to the local stations – especially the network-owned ones – if the network news operations disappeared?
I’m not arguing that we couldn’t possibly see a change in the business model that would alter the landscape for news and the relationship between networks and stations. But until that happens, there’s no reason to expect widespread changes on either a local or network basis. It’s not about news or even programming in general. It’s about money.
On the other hand, new challenges facing both local and network news could force some of those changes. The challenge isn’t the disappearing TV news audience, because it’s not disappearing. That’s another one of those commonly held myths. It is changing, and, so far, local stations and networks haven’t responded well to what is clearly a new relationship between news providers and news consumers.
The problem is that those pesky consumers have discovered that they can take control of their own media destiny, and the networks and local stations haven’t quite figured out how to cope. It’s not that viewers are watching less TV or less TV news. The problem is that they’re watching it when they want – and not when networks and local stations want them to. How inconvenient. Instead of gathering in easy-to-sell large numbers three times a day (the network evening news and the early and late evening local newscasts), viewers have the audacity to watch TV news whenever they feel like, whenever it’s convenient for them. And they don’t just watch the traditional network news, they also tune in to upstarts like CNN and Fox and MSNBC. And they get information from other less traditional broadcast and cable sources that not everyone even agrees is real news. Outrageous. And if more than six people ever figure out what TiVo is, the industry could really be in trouble.
In fact, TV stations and networks face problems similar to the newspaper industry’s. Everyone knows that newspaper circulation, as a percentage of the population, has dropped fairly steadily for nearly 20 years. Young people hardly ever read the paper at all. Among other strategies, newspapers have responded with campaigns for literacy. Noble but irrelevant. The problem isn’t that young people aren’t reading. The problem – for publishers – is that they’re not reading newspapers.
Television news faces comparable challenges. The audience simply isn’t going to aggregate in the same way that it has in the past, and that situation is likely to amplify as program choices and outlets continue to grow. The industry has yet to figure out how to respond to that. Still, television has a window of opportunity. It remains the 800-pound media gorilla, even for young people. And a surprisingly high percentage of them do watch TV news; they just don’t watch much of it.
So the real questions aren’t about when the networks or local stations will shrivel up and die from consumer desertion. Here are some better, more relevant questions: When will local stations and networks recognize that there has been a fundamental shift in the producer-consumer dynamic – and that the battle is over and the consumer has won? When do stations and networks stop insisting that business should operate the way it always used to simply because it always used to? When do programmers – including news programmers – recognize that innovation isn’t more of what didn’t fail too miserably last time around? Or that innovation isn’t what everyone else is doing, only with different anchors? When will most of the networks and local stations realize that Web sites can accomplish more than self-promotion? When will stations and networks stop complaining about new technology and do something meaningful with the digital windfall they’ve been given?
Fortunately for broadcasters, the public has retained its voracious appetite for television. So far. But the industry would be far better off if it did a little less shouting – and a little more listening.
Robert A. Papper is a professor of Telecommunications at Ball State University and oversees the annual RTNDA/Ball State University Survey on the state of radio and television news in the United States. He is also co-author of the Middletown Media Studies, a major examination of media use.