Local news programs are making gains with television viewers at the expense of network news programs, and there are contradictory attitudes among viewers about violence on television.
These are the main conclusions of a study on television trends released yesterday.
The survey was sponsored by McHugh and Hoffman, Inc., of Fairfax and KPR Associates, Inc. of Phoenix, Ariz. The Fairfax firm is a communications company which has many local stations as its clients. KPR Associates is a firm of social psychologists who have been studying television and television programming for the past 20 years.
The study, entitled "The TV Viewer Comes of Age," was begun in the summer of 1976 and completed this spring. The results indicate what many broadcasters have already discovered - local news programs are becoming more popular with viewers than network programs.
According to the study, "at present, local newscasts generate more enthusiastic responses, despite the fact that the sphere of network news is recognized to be 'more important' - of more broadly reaching significance. Local newscast viewing is determined less and less by the strength of the network news. In fact, in most major citics now individual market studies have clearly indicated that the networks' ratings are dependent upon the strength of local newcasts."
The survey found that a number of factors are contributing to this trend; among them, the viewers are familiar with the content of local news shows, they like the visual elements of live, on-the-spot reporting with mini-cameras and the people delivering the news "often seem warm and personable, allowing the audience to feel a sense of intimacy and friendship."
While those who responded to the survey found network news broadcasters to be "experienced," "knowledgeable" and "authorative," - Walter Cronkite generating the warmest response on all counts, the study reported - the network news programs in comparison to those produced by local stations are nevertheless considered cool, distant and very formalized.
While there were three types of criticism aimed at television news generally, they were most often directed against the network news programs. These criticisms centered around the issue of "bias," that there is "too much analysis" and complaints that the programs are "repetitious, therefore boring."
The charge of bias was the most interesting one. It was not one of particular political orientation - right wing as against left wing. "Rather," the study reported, it was one of "not showing all the facts," thus, "distorting the news," "sensationalizing" by "overplaying" stories, "ignoring" events and thereby barring them - for whatever purpose.
In other words, it is not an ideological posture that is being promulagated, the survey found, but an "arbitrariness in the selection and presentation of material that hinders creation of a 'complete picture.' To viewers, a lopsided or incomplete view of the world is a biased view.'
On the subject of analysis, viewers complained there was too much of it, with stories concerning Watergate, Washington, politics and political campaigns being the examples most often cited. The survey found that "while viewers do want to understand the significance which does require analysis they strongly reject personal opinion."
The accusation that television news is repetitious and trivial was more often stated than other complaints and most often directed against network news programs. There were three aspects to this complaint:
There was too much repetition between early early and late news programs; of continuing stories which viewers said they did not understand such as Lebanon and Northern Ireland; and continuing stories which viewers see as presenting trivial details and having little significance, such as coverage of politics, politicians, political campaigns, sex scandals and Patty Hearst.
The survey found that "network newcasts as they are generally produced are losing their hold on audience behavior during the early evening" especially with families in the 25 to 49-year-old age group, but the survey noted that what is ironic about this trend is that many of these viewers expressed interest "in knowing about the world and events in far-reaching places." This fact, the survey suggested, does not make this trend away from network news programs irreversible.
The survey also stated the networks are able to provide the audience a 'look of the world" as contrasted to the familiar sense of local newscasts). It is s this window-perspective to which viewers respond strongly if it's supported with film or live coverage, the survey found.
On the subject of TV violence, the survey found what it called a "dicotomy in audience attitudes. About one-third of the viewers sampled like violence, and of it weren't for its presence they probably wouldn't watch television at all. These individuals are most likely to be 18 to 35, males and entertainment-only oriented. But a part of this group, especially those who were starting families, worried about the effect of violence on their children.
Another third is intensely critical of TV violence and rejects it outright. These viewers are most likely to be women, upper middle-class, over 50, news-oriented and residents of middle-sized cities.
The remaining audience, while recognizing the rights of other viewers who olike violence and recognizing that television should reflect multiplicity in what it shows, also feels anxiety about what effect violence may have on children. This group also feels that excessive portrayal of violence "is reflecting an unrealistic view of American life which distorts the understanding of it by other members of society."
These viewers are most likely to be lower middle-class, between 35-49, and unlike the other groups use TV extensively for entertainment and information, the survey reported.
The section on violence concluded: "TV programmers need to recognize an important, underlying sociological factor that exerts a major force upon viewers' attitudes toward TV violence. It is a primary goal of all developed societies to control, redirect and reduce physical violence so that it is no longer personally harmful and destructive. The rising urban crime has only intensified this goal within the United States in recent years.
"All too often in the audience's eyes, violence as portrayed on TV is not consistent with goals in terms of clearly defining its consequences and condemning it as a social behavior pattern. As a result there is a developing attitude among the audience, that if the TV industry itself will not support and reflect these social goals, then those groups (government, special interest organization, etc.) who wish to do so, should be allowed to do so."
The study was done in two parts, the first involved a sample of 504 adults, 18 years and older, in large, medium and small cities in the Northeast, South and central part of the country and on the West Coast. In February of this year, McHugh and Hoffman and KPR commissioned Trendex Inc. to conduct a television survey with its national stratified sample to verify the key attitude held and defined by the public in the first study. This survey interviewed 1,093 adults.