STEMMING THE LOSSES
How Can TV News Win Back Viewers?
by Deborah Potter
It's no secret that the audience for local television news is shrinking.
Stations around the country are hemorrhaging viewers and TV news
executives are worried, with good reason. In the past five years,
the number of Americans who say they regularly watch local television
news has declined by more than 20 percent, according to the Pew
Research Center for the People and the Press. Why are more and more
people tuning out? Is there anything that could turn the tide and
make them tune back in?
If those questions sound almost desperate, it's because the stakes
are so high and the game so different from a few years ago. Remember
when the competition was another station's newscast? Now it's not
only cable and the Internet, it's work schedules and traffic jams,
because the most common reason people give for not watching local
TV news is that they just don't have the time. They're not home
when the early evening news is on or they're asleep when the late
news comes on, and even if they're near a TV set at news time, they
say they're just too busy to watch. Ask these people what could
bring them back and their answer is simple: "Put the news on
at a different time."
That request might once have seemed impossible to fulfill, but
no longer. In Austin, TX, the Fox station has scrapped its 10 p.m.
newscast and moved it back an hour, going head-to-head with entertainment
programs on the other networks. In Atlanta, the NBC station is launching
a 9 p.m. newscast on local cable. And in Knoxville, TN, the CBS
affiliate, WVLT-TV, has added a 7 p.m. newscast to its regular news
line-up, in a bid to attract those too-busy viewers. "If we
can come on at an hour when nobody else is doing [live] news,"
says Desiree Landers, WVLT's news director, "we can get a share
of the audience that's been running around and hasn't been able
to catch a newscast yet."
Other stations are seeking an audience by re-running newscasts
at different times. One of WVLT's competitors in Knoxville, WBIR-TV,
rebroadcasts its 6 p.m. newscast on a cable channel right up to
the 11 p.m. news. The NBC affiliates in Chicago, Los Angeles, and
Philadelphia air their local 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts a half-hour
to an hour later on the independent Paxson stations.
But simply time-shifting the same old newscast probably won't be
enough to win back the audience that local television news has lost.
Many viewers have tuned out the local news because it turns them
off. They're annoyed by the tricks and gimmicks stations use to
try to make them watch.
Take live reports, for instance. A new study by Charles Tuggle
of the University of North Carolina and Suzanne Huffmann of Texas
Christian University finds that viewers aren't fooled by live reports
that hit the air with great fanfare hours after the story is over.
In fact, viewers find the whole notion of "live for the sake
of live" condescending and a waste of time. "There are
times when it's just goofy and the viewers see that," says
Tuggle, "and they think we're doing them a disservice."
Viewers also are ill served by much of the content of local newscasts,
and they know it. They're repelled by the relentlessly negative
tone of too many stories, and flat-out bored by others. They don't
see much news on local television that relates to their lives. Research
by NewsLab, Insite Media and others suggests that the answer isn't
all that complicated. Viewers expect local television news to tell
them what's happening in the community they live in, so stations
would serve them better with a more local focus.
Maybe there's a lesson in the success of truly hyper-local news,
like the coverage provided by News 13 in Nelson County, KY. No fancy
production, no Chopper 13-just a straight-ahead newscast, airing
nightly on the hour from 6 to 11 p.m. The Louisville Courier-Journal
calls the content "the sort of news that small-town Kentuckians
have traditionally gabbed about at lunch counters, on street corners
and on neighbors' porches." The potential audience is tiny:
just 8,500 people subscribe to the cable service that provides the
newscast. But in a reversal of real-world logic, the smaller the
target, the easier it is to hit.
If stations that spend their resources on "localized"
imported sweeps features and gimmicky live shots are losing viewers-and
they are-might they not find a measure of success by actually covering
local news and airing those newscasts when people can watch them?
Sure, it would take more work, and maybe even more money. But consider
the potential consequences of staying the course, and it starts
to make a lot of sense.
(This article was originally
published in the American Journalism Review, December 2000)