News gets less local as station owners get bigger
“Our investment thesis is simple," Tribune Co. CEO Peter Liguori told New York Times reporter David Carr last year. "Scale matters.”
For local television stations, 2013 was a year of scale. This year's State of the News Media report runs down the consolidations and acquisitions that saw almost 300 TV stations change hands: Tribune buying Local TV Holdings. Gannett ending up with more than 40 stations after purchasing Belo. Media General merging with New Young, and just last week buying LIN Media to operate 74 stations. Sinclair agreeing to buy stations from Allbritton (a company I once worked for) and Fisher Communications to end up with 167 stations it will own, operate or provide services to. Nexstar Broadcasting Group closing the year with 108 stations under its auspices.
These moves have been wildly popular with stakeholders in TV ownership concerns, especially as bigger groups can demand higher retransmission fees from cable systems and, especially if they own stations in swing states, benefit from skyrocketing political advertising dollars.
But then there's the question of content. While news "generates almost half the revenue for the average TV station," the report says, 25 percent of stations broadcast news produced by another station.
Stations owned by the same company now routinely share news content regionally or groupwide. In some of the largest markets, local news services produce coverage for two or more competing stations. And more than three-quarters of local TV stations say they share news content with other media, including radio stations and newspapers, according to the most recent survey by the Radio Television Digital News Association.
The "effect on the quality of news coverage consumers receive is far more complicated to assess," the report says. There was 46 percent more local news broadcast last year than in 2003. And while Conan O'Brien likes to make fun of the same phrases popping up in newscasts, in many markets consolidation or partnerships mean viewers in some markets see newscasts produced by the same team under different banners or even simulcasts.
Pew's report looked at 18 newscasts in three markets with combined newsrooms and found that "the impact can be significant, but varies substantially from market to market."
In West Palm Beach, Fla., for example, one newsroom "produces 57 hours of news each week for the separately owned NBC and Fox stations." Sometimes the stations avoided repetition.
On a January evening, however, the first half hour of the two early newscasts had almost all of the same content, just in a different order. And on the 5 p.m. newscast, WPTV reported "just into our newsroom" information that had already aired on WFLX an hour earlier.
Technology has made it easier for stations to share content, as have local news service agreements in which stations share helicopters, for instance (the news helicopter that crashed in Seattle last week was used in a partnership between two stations) or video.
The report closes by saying the FCC may take a harder look at ownership limits but notes that "Efforts to relax ownership limits over the past decade have been repeatedly blocked in court."
Related: On Thursday at 2 p.m. ET, Pew's Amy Mitchell will lead a webinar on the report's findings.