Local TV Up, Cable Down in Pew News Study

Last year was a mixed bag for traditional TV news, with the first increase in viewership for local TV news in five years, but cable news trended down.

That is according to the 2013 Pew Research Center State of the News Media Report released on Wednesday.

According to the report, while there were more viewers of local TV news, there were fewer TV stations producing original news compared to 2010, which the report attributes to a "wave" of ownership changes and content sharing arrangements.

Those are the arrangements the FCC is putting a spotlight on in its media ownership item teed up for a vote March 31.

According to survey data from the Radio-Television Digital News Association, one quarter of the 952 stations that air newscasts do not produce the programs they air.

On the cable news front, the study found that "by nearly all measures," the news audience declined. Combined median prime time viewership to cable news channels Fox, MSNBC and CNN was down 11% to 3 million, its lowest number since 2007.

The biggest drop came at MSNBC, which lost 24% its prime time audience. CNN declined 13%, for its fourth third-place finish in the last four years.

Fox continued to lead the way. Its median prime time viewership was down only 6%, and that was still good enough (1.75 million) to beat MSNBC (619,500) and CNN (543,000) combined.

Fox News is projected to increase its revenue by 5%, and CNN by 2%, but MSNBC is expected to see a 2% decline.

Pew pointed out the major TV station consolidation in 2013 and cited stats for what it said were changes that "have occurred largely under the radar of most Americans...Nearly 300 full-power local TV stations changed hands in 2013 at a combined price of roughly $8 billion," the organization said.

"The number of stations sold was up 205% over 2012 and the value up 367%, with big owners getting even bigger. If all the pending sales go through, Sinclair Broadcasting alone will own or provide service to 167 stations in 77 markets, reaching almost 40% of the U.S. population. [M]ore stations in the same market are being operated jointly and sharing more content," Pew added. "As of early 2014, joint service agreements exist in almost half of the 210 local TV markets nationwide, up from 55 in 2011."

Pew spent more than 30 pages on a pullout on that "massive" TV station industry change, saying that while the TV industry benefited from consolidating and sharing arrangements, the impact on consumers is less clear and appears to vary. That said, it opined that "the rapidly spreading practice of separately owned stations being operated jointly drew criticism from consumer groups and new scrutiny from federal regulators."

The study says one of the consequences of sharing and consolidation is that fewer stations are originating local news content, down 8% since 2005.

The study, now in its 11th year, is a combination of new survey data, analysis of existing data, and original reporting.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.