Correction to This Article
The number of viewers for local TV newscasts during May was incorrectly stated in an article in the June 3 Arts section. The correct figure is 657,000, not 562,000, reflecting a 10-year decline of 25 percent.

Tonight's Big Story: News Viewers Missing!

The local late-news audience has dropped 25 percent since 1997.
The local late-news audience has dropped 25 percent since 1997. (Istockphoto.com)

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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 3, 2007

The news about local TV news seemed awfully familiar when the results of the May "sweeps" came in a few days ago.

WRC (Channel 4) had the most viewers once again at 5, 6 and 11 p.m. WUSA (Channel 9) lagged at just about every hour. And WTTG (Channel 5), helped by a huge lead-in audience from "American Idol," continued to have the most popular local news program with its 10 p.m. broadcast.

Something else looked familiar, too: Thousands and thousands of viewers stopped watching the news on any of the stations.

It's become a story as routine as the lurid crime stories that tend to lead local newscasts. Each quarterly "sweeps" period, local stations trot out their heavily promoted "special" reports. They tout their anchor "teams," and provide ever-expanding weather coverage featuring the latest "storm center" technology.

And year after year, the audience shrinks a little more. Sometimes it's a lot more.

Between May 2006 and last month, for example, the number of people watching Washington's four leading news stations at 5 and 6 p.m. and late at night fell by about 8 percent overall, according to Nielsen Research. Some stations were hurt far more than others. While WJLA (Channel 7) gained a modest number of viewers compared with last year, WUSA's three evening newscasts lost almost one in five (about 19 percent).

Those results might not spell crisis, but the longer trend in local news-watching is more dramatic, and perhaps more troubling.

A decade ago, in May 1997, Washington's Big Four stations attracted an average of 880,000 area viewers to their late news broadcasts each night, Nielsen says. By last month, the same four stations were averaging 562,000 viewers among them -- a decline of 25 percent in 10 years. The audience for the 6 p.m. news fell by about 37 percent.

Some of those lower numbers are due to a change in how Nielsen collects audience data. Starting in mid-2005, the ratings company began using "people meters," electronic boxes that automatically record who is watching what in a representative sample of 600 area households. The new system replaced "passive" meters, which recorded what was on a set but not who was watching it, and diaries, which 400 sample respondents filled out with their viewing choices. As a result of this change, audience levels plummeted. Local stations maintain that the new system still has bugs in it, but Nielsen says its new method is a more accurate gauge of viewers' behavior.

No matter how the audience is measured, however, few doubt that local news is becoming a much tougher game, with viewers no longer so numerous, or so loyal.

"We're dealing with audience fragmentation," says Allan Horlick, president and general manager of WUSA, and the former head of WRC. "People have so many choices today. Cable. The Internet. Mobile phones. There's no question that technology is giving viewers options they didn't have 10 or 15 years ago."

The cornucopia of media choice has eroded the audience for all the mass media, of course. The broadcast television networks have seen their prime-time ratings fall to record lows year after year, with fewer blockbuster hits. Newspapers are declining, too, as the Internet draws readers and advertisers. (However, the Washington Post's loss of readers over the past 10 years has been slower than the evening newscasts' loss of viewers; since 1997, the Post's daily circulation has fallen 14.6 percent, and 17.2 percent on Sundays).


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