Surveys tell us that local television is the number one source
of news for most Americans, and that two-thirds of those surveyed
rate its quality as excellent or good.1
But local television news is not as popular as it once was. It's
beginning to lose its audience. In many markets across the country,
more than half the people watching television at the traditional
early evening news time are watching something other than news.
In the past three years, according to the Pew Center for the
People and the Press, the number of people who call themselves
regular viewers of local television news has declined by 11%.
In 1995, almost three-quarters of those surveyed (72%) said they
watched the local news regularly. In 1998, fewer than two-thirds
(64%) fell into the category of regular viewers.2
Data collected for a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism
found a similar decline. Over a three-year period, the combined
viewership of local news was down in almost three-quarters of
the markets studied--in some cases by as much as 20 percent.3
Why? What's turning people away from local television news?
The conventional wisdom is that it's all about lifestyles. People
are too busy, not at home, or asleep when the news comes on. Indeed,
fully half the respondents to a 1996 survey by the Pew Center
said they had no time to watch local television news. But a substantial
minority--29%--were either critical of the coverage or said they
had no interest in it.4
NewsLab wanted to know more about this growing group of non-viewers.
Working with Professor Walter Gantz at Indiana University, we
helped to design a pilot study--a survey of adults in the Indianapolis
A review of Nielsen Media Research ratings data for the three
network affiliates and the Fox affiliate in Indianapolis indicates
that the market mirrors the trend in many other markets--over
the past five years, the Indianapolis audience for local news
has been slowly trending downward.6
Despite the limited reach of the study, we believe the findings
Over half the respondents (58%) said they watched the local news
"regularly," at least several nights a week. When we asked those
who said they only watch the news "sometimes" why they didn't
watch more often, the most common answer--as expected--was lack
of time (45%). But a substantial minority (23%) mentioned content
as a reason for not watching. More than half of those respondents
specifically mentioned annoyance with content laced with violence,
sex and scandals.
We also found an interesting split in the audience. About a
third of our sample said they watch the news more often now than
a few years ago, and a similar number, about a third, said they
watch less often. What's the difference between those two groups?
Well, people who watch less are not more apathetic. In fact, they
are less likely than frequent viewers to say they don't pay much
attention to local events. And people who watch less local news
are no busier than anyone else. In fact, they are somewhat less
likely to say they don't have time to watch.
Instead, we found that people who have cut back on local television
news were much more likely to say they get their local news from
other sources. They were also more likely to say the news is too
shallow, and that the newscasters are uninformed. And there are
indications that people who watch less may be turned off by the
promos for the news.
The two groups don't differ greatly in some areas where they
might be expected to. They are about equally likely to criticize
crime coverage and to say the news is boring. But people who said
they had cut down their viewing of local news were less interested
in specific kinds of content they're likely to see on the news:
the weather, accidents, crime, education and high school sports.
Interestingly, frequent viewers also said they didn't care much
about two of those topics: accidents and high school sports.
This study is too limited for us to draw any firm conclusions.
The sample size was small, and the respondents tended to be more
female, older, more educated and more affluent than the Indianapolis
population as a whole.
But the study offers news directors and broadcast
executives something to think about. Their stations may not be losing
viewers just because people are too busy to watch. Some viewers,
it seems, are turning away because they don't like what they see.
This group may be a minority of the audience, but with viewership
declining and competition increasing, it's well worth considering
what kinds of content may be driving these viewers away, and what
might bring them back.