Channel 2 Ranks Best in Nation, By Far
The PEJ study, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, used criteria developed by a team of veteran news professionals. For the third year in a row, it found that quality local TV news sells, contrary to the myth that the medium must play to the lowest common denominator.
Overall, stations earning high grades in the study ("A"s or "B"s) are more likely to be enjoying ratings success than ratings declines. Among the top 10 stations in this year's study, only two had negative ratings trends and six were climbing. Over three years, 64 percent of "A" quality stations were building ratings, a higher percentage than any other grade and nearly double that of most grades.
For the first time, the project measured lead-in retention-or how well newscasts held onto the audience from preceding programs-and found that quality is the surest way to hold onto viewers. In a test of 28 stations, only one "A" station failed to add to its lead-in, while only two "C" grade or lower broadcasts added to their audience.
Some stations that scored well on the study's quality scale were able to beat the ratings of their lead-in program by more than 20 percent.
"There's no question that the show leading into a newscast is important, but this year's findings suggest that a quality newscast can be as important as whether you follow E.R.," said Carl Gottlieb, PEJ Deputy Director and a former broadcast news executive with the Tribune Company and Fox. "Viewers will seek out quality."
This year's study also found:
· Local news across the board is getting thinner. Enterprise is withering, while the amount of out-of-town newsfeeds and recycled material is growing. The majority of stories studied this year were either feeds or footage aired without an on-screen reporter.
· The best way to build or hold onto ratings is to cover a broad range of issues and topics in the community. Stations that cover less of the community, narrowly focusing on crime or everyday events for instance, are most likely to be losing ratings.
· Shorter isn't better. Stations building ratings do fewer very short stories and more longer stories. Eye candy, it turns out, is a turn-off. Information is not.
· Profit pressures on newsrooms are beginning to manifest themselves in new ways. One-third of news directors responding to questionnaires report feeling pressured to give advertisers special coverage in their newscasts.
· Local television journalists ignore the poor. Out of 8,095 stories studied across all time slots this year, only seven concerned the disadvantaged. As a comparison, 336 concerned entertainers. In fact, over three years and 25,000 stories, only 35 focused on the needy.
This year, the Project also examined early morning and hour-long primetime newscasts, and found that each has unique qualities:
· Early morning news is yesterday's news. Only one of the eight early morning broadcasts studied received a score of "B" or higher. The shows were largely recycled from the previous night's broadcasts, with little new information. While much of the time in these shows was devoted to weather and traffic, their reliance on those topics came at the expense of actual news.
· Longer news programs don't take full advantage of additional minutes. Although hour-long prime time news programs give stations the time and opportunity to do longer and more in-depth stories, the study finds that most stations often do not use the time they have. Reports tend to be recycled from dinner-hour news broadcasts, with little indication that the stations spent the intervening hours gathering additional material.
Researchers at Princeton Survey Research Associates, a leading news media research firm, analyzed newscasts in a variety of timeslots, including morning, early-evening, primetime and late, in select cities during a sweeps week and a non-sweeps week, in February and March 2000. Nationally, over the 49 stations studied, researchers watched some 8,000 stories from 500 broadcasts.
The study's criteria defined quality in a newscast as covering a wide range of topics while closely reflecting the community, containing balanced stories, focusing on significant issues and ideas, citing multiple sources, and quoting authoritative people. The stations' quality scores were then correlated to Nielsen Media Research ratings trends over the three-year period from May 1997 to February 2000.
The research and findings are featured in the November/December issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. PEJ is affiliated with Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
The study can be found on-line at http://www.journalism.org/publ_research/local-tv/2000_toc.html.
--adapted from a Project for Excellence in Journalism press release by John McManus
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