By Mike Cavender, RTDNA Executive Director
Pew Research Center’s latest TV news research provides a bit of good news for local news. The headline on Pew’s release read “Local TV audiences bounce back.” But, to be sure, that bounce is a rather short one.
Audiences for local TV news grew in 2013 in three major time slots; mornings, early evening and (just barely) in late nights.
The year over year change in morning news was the biggest—up 6.3 per cent. Early evenings (5-7PM) saw an increase of 3.3 per cent. But the audience barely budged—up by only 0.1 per cent—in the late night news.
Still, any increase is better than none and those in 2013 came after a rough 2012 for local news, where decreases in all three of these time periods were registered. And the drops in 2012 came after downturns, too, during the previous four years.
So, what changed this time?
Pew says it’s likely due, in part, to (as you might expect) quite a few big news stories that broke during the year’s four major ratings periods. For example, November was the month that had the single biggest audience spike. November, of course, also brought the troubled launch of the Affordable Care Act website, as well as big weather events like the Midwest tornadoes and the floods in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.
There’s no way to say for sure, but the growth in 2013 also coincides with a wave of consolidation by big media groups buying large groups of stations.
Even though this year’s results may offer a modicum of encouragement to broadcasters, we need to note the overall trend in audience numbers for local TV news viewing is still declining, albeit slightly. Morning news—the best performer in recent years—has lost 3% of its audience since 2007, Early evening news has declined 12 per cent and the late news has taken the biggest hit over the past six years—down a whopping 17 per cent.
It’s true the growth of cable channels, digital platforms and the multi-screen availability of information contribute to the increased fractionalization of the news viewer. But there are also an increasing number of studies which indicate that there’s a shrinking engagement on the part of Americans with the news, in general, regardless of where it’s presented. Cynicism about government and our institutions along with a growing belief that the “news” is not relevant to my life are certainly reasons for viewers to disengage. As journalists and managers, we need to work harder to change those feelings if we ever hope to turn around these numbers.
Meanwhile, you can take a little heart in the fact that for those who are interested in the news, local TV remains the top place they get it, with nearly three out of every four U.S. adults tuning in.