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Finding the Local on Local TV

December 27th, 2003 · No Comments

A few nights ago I fell asleep watching The Weather Channel. A good friend heard about this and told my wife, “I’m a little concerned about Chris falling asleep in front of The Weather Channel. That’s what old people do.”

That smarts a bit, but since I usually fall asleep without the aid of “Local Forecasts on the 8s,” I try to reassure myself that I’m not old yet.

But, let me say something in my defense about the incredible appeal of The Weather Channel. A study done in 2001 rated The Weather Channel as “America’s favorite news and information network,” ahead of CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and the other 24-hour news and information channels.

The reason is that The Weather Channel is one of the few channels on television that regularly carries local information. Think about it: when was the last time you saw a story about Iowa on one of the other 24-hour news channels? Yet, there The Weather Channel is, giving thoughtful (and repeated) consideration to every storm system blowing through our state.

These days there is so little local information in broadcast news. Since major deregulation in media ownership rules in 1996, radio stations across the country have been gobbled up by giant radio chains that often fire local talent, eliminate local news operations, and pipe in syndicated deejays. The only local elements are often the commercials.

Local television has gone much the same way, as distant corporate owners with little real interest in serving the local community attempt to wring as much profit as they can from their television holdings.

But what is left of local content still has great appeal. The local TV news program segments that traditionally get the highest viewership are the ones with the most local content: the weather and sports.

This doesn’t mean the audience isn’t interested in the “news” part of the newscast. Instead, it’s more of an indication that the local news portion — often bogged down with inexpensive rehashed national news content and news features that tie in with network entertainment shows — doesn’t cover local issues as well as it could.

I know some wonderfully dedicated local television news people who do a great job reporting on Eastern Iowa. But they are fighting an increasingly difficult battle with corporate owners who have little interest in anything other than the bottom line.

The saddest development in local TV news is one launched a little more than a year ago by the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, a media chain based in Baltimore with media operations in more than 24 states. Sinclair’s idea for the future of TV news is News Central, which feeds national news, national sports, and weather content to their local stations.

Although Sinclair says that News Central enables their local stations to concentrate on local news, what this means in practice is that the bulk of the “local” newscast is being fed from a studio in Maryland. In fact, Maryland-originated Sinclair features like “The Point with Mark Hyman” (which at first glance appears to be an old-fashioned commentary by the local TV station general manager, until you realize that this guy never talks about local issues) eat up even more of the local news window.

Sinclair is bringing its approach to mid-sized markets like Birmingham, Dayton, Columbus, Sacramento, Milwaukee, and even Des Moines (Fox, Ch. 17) and Cedar Rapids (CBS, Ch. 2). In Iowa, Sinclair cuts corners even more by sharing anchors and operations between their Des Moines and Cedar Rapids stations, making the “local” part even less local.

How much do corporations like Sinclair really care about local news? The telling comment is in the company’s latest annual report, where the chairman wrote that Sinclair recently invested $20 million in the largest automobile retailer in the Baltimore area. “When you consider that auto dealers can currently be acquired at prices that are 2 to 4 times less than what a television station costs in order to get the same cash flow,” he gushed, “then it economically makes sense for us to further explore such investments.”

The good citizens of Iowa and elsewhere can only hope that Sinclair makes a complete transition to the auto business, and returns the local airwaves to local news.

Tags: Cable Television · Journalism Ethics · Media Economics

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