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New study questions news quality at O&Os

Feb 17, 2003  •  Post A Comment

A study that claims top station groups fail to produce “quality” news-released just before the government’s media ownership meetings-is drawing criticism from members of the station community.
The study, executed by the Project for Excellence in Journalism in collaboration with Princeton Survey Research Associates and released today, finds that network owned-and-operated stations are failing to produce “higher-quality newscasts” by a large margin over their network-affiliated competitors. The findings used an analysis of 172 stations that contained around 23,000 stories reported over a period of five years.
Among the discoveries claimed by the study:
Smaller station groups tended to produce higher-quality newscasts than stations owned by larger companies, while stations with cross-ownership-in which the parent company also owns a newspaper in the same market-tended to produce a higher level of newscasts.
The study is being released the day before Federal Communications Commission members meet in Los Angeles on Tuesday for an informal hearing. That is a prelude to a meeting in Richmond, Va., on Feb. 27 that will be the FCC’s formal hearing on lifting the station-ownership cap, which limits the reach of any one owner to 35 percent of the country. Currently Viacom and Fox have surpassed cap limits with household reaches of 40 percent and 38 percent, respectively. However they have been given permission to await the FCC ruling before divesting to get under the cap.
“I am wary of and concerned about the study of news or any kind of programming, especially when it’s designed to affect government action,” said Ellen Agress, senior VP and deputy general counsel for Fox Entertainment Group. “As a mass medium, our job is to attract viewers to our programming; what good is it to put on programming that nobody wants to watch? They had very subjective criteria about what is good and it’s clear that the audience doesn’t agree with them.”
The report found that stations owned by smaller companies, those with three outlets or fewer, were more than twice as likely to receive grades of “A” than stations owned by either the 10 largest stations groups or the next 15 largest. The report also claims that the biggest companies were more likely to stand out as notably bad, with the 10 largest owners twice as likely as small companies to produce “F”-grade newscasts.
Those grades were awarded through survey questionnaires given to 14 television news professionals-managers, anchors and station group heads-who determined that “a local newscast should: 1. cover the whole community, 2. be significant and informative, 3. demonstrate enterprise and courage, 4. be fair, balanced and accurate, 5. be authoritative and 6. be highly local.”
Those professionals assigned “A” grades to 11 percent of the programs broadcast by the top 10 groups, which include Viacom, Fox, NBC, Tribune and ABC. Meanwhile, small groups earned an “A” 31 percent of the time under those criteria. The top 10 groups received an “F” 7 percent of the time, compared with 12 percent for station groups from 11 to 25 and 3 percent for small groups.
The study found that different ownership structures have different virtues and liabilities. It concluded that “network O&Os excelled at offering communities a variety of viewpoints in their newscasts but didn’t fare well for overall quality. Small companies score best for overall quality but midsize companies surpass them when it comes to enterprise and localism.”
With the report set to be presented to the FCC, executives of large station groups were quick to dismiss the study.
Indeed, rating trends for the top 10 groups proved to be working, according to the study, which examined three years of ratings-12 ratings books-to see how ownership type affects the ratings of stations. They found that exactly half of the top 10 station groups showed ratings improvement over the course of three years compared with 41 percent for 11 to 25 groups, 27 percent for midsize groups and 40 percent for small groups.
“I think those numbers speak for themselves,” said an executive at a top station group. “We are proud of how we handle the news and our ratings show that viewers agree with what we broadcast.”
Ms. Agress noted that since acquiring the Chris-Craft Industries station group, Fox stations had actually beefed up the amount of news coverage available in their markets.
“We’re like a poster child for how to run a large station group,” she said. “We’ve increased the amount of news in our markets by almost 60 percent and it continues to be a major aspect of our programming. Some of those stations had no news at all before we came in.”