Dwindling Local TV News Still Commands Airwaves

MANHATTAN (CN) — As media conglomerates increasingly reshape local television news, rattled by an already decades-long decline in audience numbers, the Pew Research Center found Thursday that such programs still attract more viewers than their cable or network counterparts.

The survey falls a little more than two months after the nation’s largest TV station operator Sinclair Broadcast Group announced the acquisition of at least another 42 stations, at a price tag of $3.9 billion, to its lineup in 33 markets.

Since 2007, according to the survey, the average viewership for ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox affiliates have fallen for all key time slots: including morning (12 percent), early evening (19 percent) and late-night (31 percent) time slots.

That has not made the market less lucrative, however, especially during election years.

Detecting a cyclical pattern to local news revenue, Pew cited BIA/Kelsey data finding on-air advertising hit $20.6 billion during last year’s presidential race, a slight rise from $20 billion from 2012.

By contrast, the top seven conglomerates — Tribune, Nexstar, Sinclair, Tegna, Gray, Media General and Scripps — reported a boom in their political advertising to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

SEC filings by those seven companies attribute a total of $843 million in revenue to political advertising, up from more than the $696 million in 2014 and $574 million in 2012.

Close observers of last year’s presidential race should not find the numbers surprising.

After the election, Politico reported that President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner disclosed an agreement with Sinclair that forced the conservative TV news giant’s affiliates from coast-to-coast to run interviews without editorial commentary.

Before its announced expansion in May, Sinclair already owned 166 local TV stations reaching 38 percent of U.S. households. The behemoth is known for forcing affiliates to air “must-runs,” often containing the hard right commentary of its owners.

Local news also has made money on rising fees for cable and satellite systems to retransmit their channels.

Retransmission revenue spiked last year to $8 billion, up from $6.4 billion in 2015, according to Kagan, a media research group within S&P Global Market Intelligence.

As business for local news boomed, salary increases in the newsrooms have been modest.

In 2015, the median salary for local TV news directors rose by 7 percent from the previous year, and the median news reporters salaries rose by 11 percent, according to data from the annual RTDNA/Hofstra University survey.

Last year also saw a sharp uptick in local TV news consolidation.

“In 2016, 98 local TV stations changed hands at a cost of about $5 billion, as annually reported by BIA/Kelsey,” Pew’s senior researcher Katerina Eva Matsa said in a fact sheet. “This is up from $670 million across 86 stations that experienced changes in ownership in 2015.”

This trend may be expected to continue, with Sinclair announcing a tentative acquisition of Tribune and Nexstar merging with Media General.

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