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By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

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.

The Yardstick

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 makes it 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.

Average Early Evening News Share
May 1997 to May 2005
Design Your Own Chart
Source: BIAfn Media Access Pro

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.

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.

Average Late News Share
May 1997 to May 2005
Design Your Own Chart
Source: BIAfn Media Access Pro

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

Morning News
Evening News
Late News
– 6.7%
– 7.9%
– 15%

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.

Measuring Audiences

The debate surrounding television audience research at the local level was again center stage in 2005. At the heart of matters is Nielsen Media Research’s Local People Meters (LPMs).11

How Nielsen Media Measures Viewers in the 210 U.S. Television Markets

Type of Market
Method Used
Number of Markets Covered
Percent of TV Households Covered
Local People Meter Markets
Local People Meters measure total viewership and viewer demographics on a daily basis
9 (to be 10 by July 2006)
Combined Meter/Diary Markets
Electronic Meters measure total viewership on a day-by-day basis; Handwritten Diaries track viewer demographics four times a year
46 (45 by July 2006)
Diary Markets
Handwritten Diaries track total viewership and viewer demographics four times a year

Source: Nielsen Media Research, 2005

As predicted, after some initial protest most station groups have signed contracts with Nielsen Media for audience data based on LPMs. That includes the Spanish-language group Univision, which had resisted the change from diaries because of concerns that Hispanics might be undercounted.

LPMs were rolled out by 2005 in Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. Detroit & Dallas-Fort Worth got meters in January 2006 and Atlanta is scheduled to get the LPMs by July 2006. Those are the top 10 television markets in the U.S.12 The larger Nielsen Media local TV universe is made up of 210 local markets, which are still measured in the more traditional method of either electronic meters (“combined markets”) and/or handwritten diaries (“diary markets”).

Several of the largest TV groups, however, are still fighting the LPM method because of concerns over the accuracy of the devices and the representativeness of the demographic samples. Groups such as Fox Television (News Corp.), Tribune Broadcasting, Gannett Broadcasting and Allbritton Communications have publicly opposed the meters. After Nielsen Media began introducing the meters, the audience of many of those big broadcasters, including News Corp.’s Fox stations, as measured by LPMs was much less than the audience previously found by other means.

As a part of the battle, a group of broadcasters were able to get a bill introduced in the Senate in July 2005 that would require Nielsen Media Research to have all its new measuring devices certified by the Media Ratings Council Inc. (MRC), a consortium of broadcasters, cable operators, advertisers and others. The bill’s opponents, including Nielsen Media Research, said that it would stifle and delay any development of new technologies. Heading into 2006, the bill had gone nowhere.

Arbitron: New Player in the Research Game

Arbitron, the leading radio ratings company in the U.S. , re-entered the field of television research in 2005 and added a new dimension to the ratings debate. The company used its Portable People Meters (PPMs), which can encode and log any type of audio, in Houston in September 2005 to measure TV ratings for the first time. The test and market demonstration had a sample of roughly 2,000 people from about 800 households. Some 40 to 50 cable networks and 15 TV stations participated by specially encoding their programming.

Nielsen Media Research gave Arbitron access to its meter/diary television audience estimates in Houston so the industry could compare the Nielsen ratings to audience estimates produced by the Portable People Meter system. The results showed that the PPM ratings patterns from Houston were similar to the ratings trends seen in Nielsen Media’s local people meter markets with one major exception: ratings were higher with the PPM, in part because it could track out-of-home viewing.13 That is a critical measurement advantage for Arbitron, given that people are watching or being exposed to TV in work or leisure places more than even before. In the preliminary findings from Houston, Arbitron data suggested that out-of home audience is about 14% of the total audience.14

The new developments were received enthusiastically by a number of TV groups, especially those who object to Nielsen Media’s LPM. But whether Arbitron will expand rapidly in TV markets is still a question mark. Arbitron is involved in a more detailed examination of the audio detection capabilities of the PPM and of the research, business and financial implications of a potential joint venture with Nielsen Media Research. Such a step could enable the PPM to serve as a central local market ratings service for radio and television.

The fate of this service will depend on Nielsen Media Research, which hasn’t made a decision yet, and would potentially imply a single ratings currency for radio, TV and cable.15 Nielsen Media Research has a considerable stake in the decision, aside from the rivalry and ego issues between the two companies. The company has spent years developing its own (costly and controversial) Local People Meter, which is now in nine markets. If it suddenly threw its weight behind the PPM, it would amount to an admission that its LPM is the inferior of the two measurement tools.16 That accounts for the time it is taking in reviewing the possible partnership. A decision was expected around the first quarter of 2006.


1. The Project uses data from BIA Financial Network (BIAfn) to deduce audience figures (as well as economic ones; next section). BIAfn collates data originally gathered by Nielsen Media Research. Time slots are based on BIA categorization.

2. Webster, J., Phalen, P., & Lichty, L., (2000) Ratings Analysis: The Theory and Practice of Audience Research, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, New Jersey. Also, BIAfn does not report ratings figures directly. Since ratings are the percentage of all households with television tuned to a specific program, if we know the percentage of households using television that are tuned to a specific program (share), and what percentage of households in the market are using their televisions at that time (HUT), it is possible to calculate ratings. BIAfn provides both these figures.

3. For early evening news, we took newscasts between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. in the Central/Mountain Time zones and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the Eastern/Pacific Time zones. For late news, we took 10 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. the Central/Mountain Time zones and 11 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. in Eastern/Pacific.

4. These stations were originally chosen based on their being affiliated with one of the three major networks — ABC, CBS or NBC — and having a news director on their staff. Stations affiliated with other networks were not included either because they did not carry news or, as in the case of Fox Network, they aired news in non-traditional timeslots. We have remained consistent with this approach year-to-year for the purposes of a trend over time. It is worth noting, though, that in 2005 Fox began to produce some news that competed with the traditional three networks. Of all local stations with news directors, according to BIA data from August of 2005, NBC has a 16% share, both ABC and CBS have 15%, and 10% are affiliated with Fox.

5. It should be noted that the sample analyzed might not include the newer entrants into local news. If all those stations that have not run news in the past were included, the picture might be different.

6. Most local morning broadcasts run from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. Then the network takes over until 10 a.m. The local audience can also get local updates on the network morning shows, through local news cut-ins on important information like weather or traffic.

7. Again, it is worth noting that Nielsen Media Research numbers do not include the Fox-affiliated stations since they traditionally aired news at different times than the other networks. Recently, though, Fox has been making a big push in local news programming, particularly against the network morning shows.

8. The data refers to that collected by the first round of the ‘Middletown Media Studies’. These media use studies were conducted by the Center for Media Design, Ball State University . According to the Center, they are an attempt to understand how consumers interact with major media and the roles media play in their lives. They have over 5000 hours of observed time of 15 principal media captured in 15 second increments. For more information, visit

9. Robin Smythe, general manager of Central Florida News 13 (a non-affiliated local station) quoted in Hal Bodeker, “Solar power: Local stations and networks are tapping into the energy of the morning-news hours,” Orlando Sentinel, September 7, 2005.

10. Stan Knott, general manager, WOFL-Channel 35 quoted in Hal Bodeker, “Solar power: Local stations and networks are tapping into the energy of the morning-news hours,” Orlando Sentinel, September 7, 2005.

11. Used for years to measure national viewing trends, Nielsen Media Research introduced the Local People Meters (LPM) locally in 2002 as a way of more accurately measuring viewing habits. The LPMs continuously measure viewing and transmit data electronically every night.

12. Nielsen Media Research Web site, Local People Meter Roll-Out Schedule. Online at

13. Katy Bachman, “Mixed News for Houston PPM,” Media Week Web site, September 20, 2005.

14. Ibid. Also Prof. Bob Papper of Ball State University , personal interview, February 5, 2006 , “The Middletown Media Studies put the out of home TV audience at around 10%.”

15. Katy Bachman, “Mixed News for Houston PPM,” Media Week Web site, September 20, 2005.

16. Kevin Downey, “For Nielsen, a Most Delicate Dilemma,” Media Life, November 18, 2005 .