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GUEST POST: Peter Dunn, CBS Stations President, Sounds Off on Pew Study

A recent Pew Research study on the media reported that fewer people are tuning in to local news, and that TV stations lack the resources to thoroughly do their jobs. 

Our guest poster, Peter Dunn, president of CBS Television Stations, disagrees with some findings in Pew’s “The State of the News Media 2013,” which you can read here.

Dunn’s “Open Letter” is below.


How accurate would a public opinion survey regarding the new Pope be if the pollster had failed to interview more than a handful of Catholics?

I used to think it was unlikely that such a flawed study could exist. That was until last week, when the Pew Research Center announced some “research” findings about local television news that failed to measure up to Pew’s standards.

Pew claims that local TV stations are doing fewer stories about government and politics and more stories about sports, weather and traffic.

How did they come to these conclusions? Brace yourself.

They watched a total of six local newscasts over three days between late November 2012 and early January of this year in each of these four markets: Bend, Oregon (the 192nd largest market in the country), Milwaukee (#34), Pittsburgh (#23) and Houston (#10). Then they compared those 24 newscasts to what they observed during one day (May, 11, 2005) seven years earlier in Bend, Milwaukee and Houston.

I wasn’t in Milwaukee this past December 18 (one of the survey dates), but I did some checking and learned that snow and freezing rain was falling that day. So that explains the increase in weather coverage and reports about traffic on slippery roadways compared to a day in the middle of May.

I also wasn’t in the Pacific Northwest during this past holiday season, but I suspect it was pretty quiet at Bend City Hall when local newscasts were studied during the week before Christmas and the day after New Year’s Day. I’m sure there was a lot more local government news to cover on May 11, 2005 given that local elections were taking place a few days later.

I did visit Pittsburgh, where CBS owns KDKA-TV, during the most recent NFL season and, based on what I observed, I am confident that all of the local media outlets spent more time covering the Steelers on November 26, the day after an important late-season game, than they committed to a Pirates road game in San Francisco on May 11, 2005.

The other part of the Pew study that I find to be thoroughly unfair is the doom-and-gloom ratings analysis that claims local news ratings are declining. That is definitely not the case here at CBS.

For the entire 2012-13 season to date (a period covering 25 weeks, not just three days), our CBS-owned stations have delivered year-to-year growth at 5 a.m., 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. The early evening newscasts are showing double-digit percentage increases in household and adult 25-54 ratings. As for our 6 a.m. and late newscasts, the season-to-date ratings have not changed from a year ago, which means despite what Pew says is an industry trend the local news ratings for CBS-owned stations are not down. I’m sure the same holds true for many of our competitors.

Are there some stations around the country that could be doing a better job of covering local news? Yes. But is it fair to paint a picture of our entire industry based on a such a small and flawed sample? No.

For all of us at CBS, this is a great time to be in broadcasting. We’re proud of the investments we’ve made in our stations and the people who are doing a great job of serving the public.



On the questions about the content study, Pew Research clearly describes the findings as “a sample,” but we also draw on more data than suggested by Mr. Dunn. In the top section of the content report, we list the full details of the comparison which amounts to 24 broadcasts, 1,055 stories and more than 15 hours of news programming in 2012; 908 stories over almost 11 hours of programming in 2005; and from 1998-2002, 54 stations, 33,911 stories over 1,200 hours of programming. Most importantly, these findings are consistent with other significant research we’ve conducted on local television over the last 15 years, including 48 shows from 8 different stations in 2013 and data from 50 stations in ten markets in 2005.

On the subject of the ratings data, this is Pew Research Center analysis of Nielsen data, which we have been doing for 10 years in State of the News Media. We gather Nielsen data across roughly 200 markets each year for the four sweeps periods. As you can see below, there is a clear decline across CBS affiliate stations as well as other network affiliated stations: