TV News Pounded in PEJ Study


"At many old-media companies, though not all, the decades-long battle at the top between idealists and accountants is now over. the idealists have lost."

That is one of the sobering conclusions of the Project for Excellence in Journalism's annual report, The State of the News Media 2006.

The study looked at a range of media, including network, local station, and cable news, and found much wanting.

CNN remains the industry leader in terms of finances, says the study, though Fox is "growing on nearly all fronts" Fox continues to gain audience share, while CNN and MSNBC are losing it, according to the study.

The study sees a threat to cable news channels from Web sites as a place for instant news, though notes that cable channels are trying to co-opt the model (CNN's Situation Room arguably the most prominent example).

As for network news: "the underlying problems...continue without apparent interruption," the study says. Viewership continued to decline, the nightly newscasts "skew old" while advertisers are going the other direction.

But, as with cable, the study looked to the Internet as a gauge of important change. While the talk in the industry was about the absence of the three long-time anchors--Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather, of Ted Koppel and producer Tom Bettag exiting Nightline, and the replacement of Andrew Heyward atop CBS News, the study suggested that one of the more significant hires was billionaire Larry Kramer taking over CBS digital.

"Five years from now, we may look back and think the most important changes of the year in network news were about other things," the study suggests. "Did the three news divisions really begin to innovate television news on the Internet? Did they start to see broadcasting as no longer their core delivery platform for news? To what extent did they start to see their TV channels as a way to drive traffic to the next generation of television news, online?"

In the local TV news race, the study found declining early evening news ratings, and possible trouble brewing in early morning, the explosive growth area for local news in the past few years. The upside is that late local news "may be improving its audience appeal."

Pointing out that the local TV business is still a license to print money--40% or 50% profit margins in many cases--the study warned that there was a risk to continuing to demand "such huge profit margins and year-to-year growth in earnings when the audience is stagnant," particularly if the casualty is investment in the product even as the competition heats up.

The study also lays some blame at the FCC's feet, saying "an uncertain regulatory environment meant that media companies were less likely to grow by buying up new properties."

The study also says that diverting funds to the digital conversion has not helped matters: "The best evidence suggests that TV journalists continue to be stretched thin, required to produce more programs and making the conversion to the Web — usually without a commensurate increase in their budget. Money is also being diverted to make the transition to digital. And it is not only the on air-product that’s suffering; the effort in these new areas, especially online, is probably not what it should be."

It gave a fairly damning assessment of local news in its Day in the Life Study--in this case May 11, 2005--saying that "[L]ocal TV news stories emerged as the most thinly sourced and shallowly reported of any medium studied other than local radio."

The study found that " roughly half of all the news hole on local TV news that was not given over to weather, traffic and sports was devoted to crime and accidents. Stories about local institutions, government, infrastructure, education and more were generally relegated to brief anchor reads in the middle of the newscast," and war news got less time than lifestyle stories.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism is under the direction of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and is funded by the Pew Charitable Trust.