Local News Endures

Apr 6, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Local TV stations lost far less of their late news audience than their network partners did in the lead-in prime-time half-hour in the wake of the writers strike.
Late local newscasts are crucial programming for stations, as the late news accounts for as much as 20% of some stations’ advertising revenue.
No one is about to dismiss the relevance of network lead-in to the performance of late local newscasts, but in an era when people increasingly watch programs, not stations, it seems not so “impactful as it might have been 10 years ago,” said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz Television Group.
While the strike ended in mid-February, networks’ lineups are only now returning to normal. The February sweeps strategies were long on stunts and reality and short on original episodes of the networks’ most popular series.
Mr. Carroll’s analysis of ratings data from Nielsen Co. for the February sweeps in 99 of the nation’s top 100 markets (Boston continues to have technical problems and was omitted for this story) showcased an unexpected durability among local newscasts.
“I was honestly surprised at how little year-to-year the newscasts were off percentage-wise. They were hurt, but it would seem like they weren’t irreparably hurt. They were just nicked,” Mr. Carroll said.
“American Idol”-powered Fox Broadcasting was down the least of the major broadcast networks with a February-to-February household ratings decline of 10% from 9:30 p.m. to 10 o’clock. Fox-affiliated local stations’ late local news ratings were down only 4%.
CBS and its local partners were the biggest losers, with the network’s 10:30-11 p.m. block down 35% year-to-year and the affiliates’ late local news down 17%.
In between: NBC, down 14% in the final prime-time half-hour, and local NBC stations down 8%. ABC declined 21% in late lead-in, and local ABC stations’ late news fell 6%.
In the top 50 markets (minus Boston), 20 NBC-affiliated stations had the No. 1 late local newscast. ABC-affiliated stations and CBS-affiliated stations each claimed the top late local spot in 12 markets. Fox local stations claimed the top late local spot in five markets.
Ad-spending data from February is not available, but more than one local station executive suggested that any lost revenues from late local news more likely can be attributed to the overall slump in the economy than to the Writers Guild of America strike.
A general manager in a large group who did not wish to be identified said stations with which he is familiar have not seen revenue losses that they could attribute to the strike. At this point, he said, it’s even difficult to identify most advertisers who might be cutting back spending because of the economic downturn. That’s because the pool of advertisers is always changing and they seldom buy even as much as six weeks ahead.
At times like this, when “your market is weak, then you look at your business development efforts and your relative share of market,” said Bruce Baker, executive VP of Cox Television, which has 15 stations.
Some station executives maintain that retaining market share of audience—even if there are some viewers lost—will allow a station to hold on to, or perhaps even raise, advertising rates because they are still the route to the biggest audience for advertisers.
Any losses related to strike-caused viewer erosion will not cripple a station as long as the declines do not become permanent, Mr. Baker said.
“Stations have good ratings books and bad ratings books,” he said. All are expected to be No. 1 in their markets regardless of lead-ins, which often have predictable fluctuations: ABC’s historic trend, for example, has been to have a stronger fall, while Fox doesn’t gain steam until the second half of the season, with the debut of ‘American Idol.’
“I know that our Fox stations had a better first quarter than our non-Fox stations,” Mr. Baker said.
Mr. Carroll is confident that stations can recover lost strike-related ratings ground, especially after seeing the results from February.
“The durability of the newscasts despite the declines in prime time has got to be looked at as a relative positive,” he said.


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