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!

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).

But unlike other media, the local TV news blues are in some ways self-inflicted.

To compete for ever more elusive audiences, local stations have expanded their news, weather and sports into more hours of the day, dividing each competitors' share of the market into smaller slices. Local news practically saturates the airwaves now: Each of the major stations starts its news day at 5 a.m. and finishes -- with breaks for soap operas, talk shows and other entertainment programs -- at 11:30 p.m.

WTTG, owned by Fox Broadcasting, now has news on seven hours a day; it added a 5 p.m. newscast in 2002 and a new half-hour at 11 p.m. last summer.

Local news also comes in Spanish, with the advent of newscasts on Washington affiliates of Telemundo and Univision. It's also available live for 14 hours a day on cable's NewsChannel 8. And still more is on the way. Channel 5 plans to launch a daily one-hour 11 a.m. newscast this summer (replacing its current half-hour newscast at noon). Fox5 also will expand its six-days-a-week "Fox 5 Morning News" to Saturday mornings, says Duffy Dyer, vice president and general manager of the station. Bill Lord, WJLA's vice president of news, says his station has also looked into expanding its news programming, too, though he won't say what timeslots ABC7 is considering.

More news won't translate into more viewers, especially if the news itself doesn't improve, says Del Walters, a former WJLA anchor and investigative reporter. "We started cheapening the news," says Walters, who now runs his own film production company in Northern Virginia. "How may times can you turn on the evening news or the morning news and it leads with somebody being shot? What we've done is we've gone to 'It bleeds it leads' and now the thing that's bleeding the most is the audience."

As paradoxical as it sounds, more news does make solid economic sense, even as audiences fragment, say Dyer and Lord say. Consider the alternatives, they say: Compared with buying a syndicated program such as "The Oprah Winfrey Show" or a game show, producing another newscast is a relatively inexpensive proposition. Local stations already produce more news than they can use, so expanding this type of programming doesn't require additional investment in sets, cameras or satellite trucks. In some cases, stations don't even need to hire more reporters, camera people or producers.

News, says Lord, "is pretty cost-effective, and it gets more cost-effective as you add more programs. I've already got 90 percent of what I need right now" to start another newscast.

What's more, with the networks' declining fortunes, there aren't as many hit sitcoms and dramas coming on the rerun market for local stations. "You look in the pipeline and you see a few shows here and there," Dyer says. "I've bought [rights to some rerun programs] that I thought were going to be surefire successes and they under-performed. News makes sense to us. It's our strong suit."

Local news has been the single biggest moneymaker for TV stations, accounting for as much as half of stations' revenue, says Bob Papper, a Hofstra University journalism professor who studies station economics. Although producing the news costs money -- veteran anchors such as News4's Jim Vance and WJLA's Gordon Peterson are million-dollar-a-year employees -- stations keep all of the ad revenue generated by their newscasts, he says. This is in contrast to entertainment shows, in which ad revenues are split with the network or program syndicator.

Even so, Papper says the golden goose isn't producing like it used to, due in part to intensified news competition. Not long ago, he says, stations earned profits as high as 40 to 50 percent on every ad dollar they brought in. The figure is between 20 and 35 percent now, he says.

That is hardly a formula for financial panic, and there are few signs of it at local stations. Only one, WRC, has recently announced cutbacks in its news operations; in the past five months, several of its longtime stars, including entertainment reporter Arch Campbell, anchor Susan Kidd and sportscaster George Michael, have left. But the cost-cutting was mandated by WRC's parent company, NBC Universal, which is trimming budgets in all of its operations.

Some suggest, however, that as the audience changes, local news has to change to keep up. Craig Allen, a professor of broadcast journalism at Arizona State University, says local stations have stuck with "a full menu approach" -- news, weather and sports -- at a time when the audience might be demanding something else. He points to cable networks, such as the Fox News Channel and CNN, that have found that they can keep audiences from flipping away by covering every detail of a developing story -- the kidnapped blonde, the crisis in the Mideast -- often for hours on end.

"The fact is, local newscasts aren't adapted to that," says Allen, the author of "News Is People," a history of the local TV news business. "Stations might want to look inside their own newscasts and ask if the way they're covering stories in a way that fits with how modern viewers watch TV. People no longer sit there and watch 20 little stories at a time."

Local executives, though, say the news has been gradually evolving. Local news is faster and harder than it was a decade or more ago, says WJLA's Lord, with more live and "breaking" stories. Gone, he says, are the softer human-interest stories, such as "the local chainsaw artist who is carving a sculpture in his back yard. You're not going to see that anymore. All of our newscasts are much more immediate. It's a combination of changing [viewer] tastes and competitive forces. People want immediacy."

WUSA's Horlick thinks that localism is the key competitive advantage for stations amid intensified competition and changing technology.

"Yahoo and AOL can't compete with pure local broadcasters, or newspapers," he says. They just don't have the knowledge of the community and the resources to cover it."

Horlick echoes something that his counterpart at WRC, Michael Jack, says: The future isn't just local TV news, but news delivered in any form the viewer wants it -- via the Internet, an iPod, a PDA or even via two-way digital TV (just as soon as someone invents it).

"Over the next few years, we're going to see a blurring of the TV and the computer and the mobile device," Horlick says. "We've got to be able to deliver information over multiple devices. Our job today is to get our skill sets in order so that when we reach that tipping point, we're ready. . . .

"We're not just talking about a different kind of TV news. We're talking about a cultural revolution in the information business."

Falling ratings? No problem. Just look to the future: "Do I think the pendulum will swing back to us?" Horlick asks. "Yes, I certainly do."

Staff writer John Maynard contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company