Amid the outcry from watchdog groups and some FCC commissioners about the dangers of consolidation, a new study of local television news warns that greater concentration of stations in the hands of giant companies will likely lower the quality of local news.
While acknowledging sometimes narrow and inexplicable findings, the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said its results strongly suggest regulatory changes "that encourage heavy concentration of ownership in local television by a few large corporations will erode the quality of news Americans receive."
The PEJ, funded by the Pew Charitable Trust and affiliated with Columbia University, studied three years of ratings books. It found that "the very largest companies have a greater ability to generate positive ratings trends-or a lower tolerance for negative ratings trends-than do smaller companies.
"But they also have a much higher tolerance for producing low quality." It added: "The ability of larger companies to generate ratings success while producing lower-quality content thus raises another concern if the ownership rules are lifted. … These companies already show less of a commitment to quality, and economies of scale raise the possibility they will extend this format to new acquisitions."
Fred Reynolds, president of Viacom's station group, the largest as ranked by BROADCASTING & CABLE.
He said viewers offer their own votes for quality when they choose the stations they watch, and large station groups and O&Os—which typically bring greater resources into their markets—figure prominently in that vote. "Quality is in the eye of the beholder. Most people watch a station they trust, and they have a long-term relationship with that station."
Ellen Aggress, deputy general counsel, for News America Inc., second-ranked Fox's domestic parent company, offered that "judging news by quality can be dangerous. If this is designed to influence the FCC, I would hope the FCC would continue its traditional practice of not getting involved in judging the quality of programming in television." That should hold true especially for news programming, she added, "which is at the heart of our First Amendment freedoms."
Fox stations, the newest O&O group, have increased the amount of local news they air by 60%, she said.
Despite warning about further consolidation by the big companies, the PEJ study found that crossownership of a local station and newspaper tended to produce higher quality newscasts. And network affiliates generally produced better news than network-owned stations, and smaller station groups were inclined to produce higher quality newscasts than those owned by larger companies "by a significant margin."
PEJ Director Tom Rosenstiel said his organization is taking no position and did not grade individual station groups. But he said station groups might someday grow so large that no study would be able to track the content of them all. As it is, though the differences between the quality at large and small ownership groups, he noted, "is not small."
Jim Keelor, the head of Liberty Corp., which owns 15 stations in markets 50 to 181, felt a blanket statement regarding consolidation was unfair. "Anybody that's going to make that kind of investment has got to protect that investment," said Keelor, himself a former newsman.
The data included findings regarding 23,000 local TV stories from 172 stations. That information was not collected for this study, but culled from the more than 1 million pieces of data analyzed for the five-year grading of local TV news quality; results of which have been released periodically since 1998.
But with the FCC considering changes in current limits on station ownership, the PEJ applied its data to ownership categories based on size, network ownership or affiliation, crossownership and whether the company is publicly or privately held.
PEJ's definition of quality included local relevance, broad community coverage, balance, sourcing and accuracy.