Bucking 'Normalcy' Once Again, Local News Viewership Grows
As the local TV news operations ramp up for the key November sweeps period, the industry is abuzz with unanswered questions. Will KXAN's new set and 5pm newscast shift the balance of power? Will lackluster ratings finally convince KEYE that it was a mistake to pay big money to beloved anchors Judy Maggio and Ron Oliveira? Will Fox weather guy Scott Fisher lose his calm professionalism and take a machete to the Doppler radar?
These are pressure-packed times in Austin's TV newsrooms, which, against all odds, continue to buck the most pervasive trend gripping the industry. It's simple: Around the country, people are tuning out local TV news. It's the insidious horror yapping at the genitals of all TV news executives. Despite all their slick promos and the excellent posturing by their stern news maidens, in market after market, ratings show a slow, withering decline in viewership.
But not in Austin. In TV news circles, Austin is an anomaly, a freakish, well-groomed exception to the seismic shift taking place in local media markets. A review of the ratings for the last five years finds that the total number of people watching Austin's TV news programs actually increased for both early-evening and late-evening newscasts. For example, the average number of people watching late-evening local news programs – Fox affiliate KTBC's 9pm program and the other three network affiliates' 10pm newscasts – grew from 196,000 in the May 2002 sweeps period to 220,000 in May 2007, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Part of the increase can be simply attributed to the waves of people moving to Central Texas to buy their little slice of suburbia. From 2000 to 2006, Travis County's population increased by more than 13%; Williamson County grew by 41%. But the number of competitors for Austin viewers also increased dramatically, including Univision's popular Spanish-language newscasts, which carved off a chunk of the audience. Time Warner Cable's 24-hour news operation, News 8 Austin, which premiered in 1999, grew its average daily household audience by 80% in the last three years.
"For us to be able to take on additional competition and still maintain or increase our audience is phenomenal," said Patti Smith, general manager of ABC affiliate KVUE.
With Jon Stewart, TMZ on TV, and reruns of Wheel of Fortune offering viewers an alternative to "stories every parent won't want to miss," local news operations in cities around the country aren't faring nearly as well as Austin. "The State of the News Media 2007" report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that, on a national level, the total rating points for local late news – measuring the percentage of the total number of televisions tuned to news – fell 13.9% from February 2005 to February 2006. In May, the early-evening newscasts lost 9.1% from the same period in 2005, the study reported. In contrast, the total ratings for Austin's early-evening and late-evening time periods are almost unchanged over the last five years.
To anyone who watches Austin TV news and sees cookie-cutter newscasts offering a similar mix of press conferences, crime news, and relentless weather reports, the portrayal of such news as a trend-busting success is jaw-dropping, a Bizarro World concept. Try to find someone – anyone – who thinks Austin TV news is really great, just awesome. The one constant in criticizing Austin TV news is that no one (who doesn't work in the industry) ever steps forward to defend it and say, "You're wrong, local news is fan-fuckin'-tastic!"
Yet the numbers don't lie. The stations aren't attracting the 15 to 20 ratings they garnered in the Eighties, when the entire community would tune in to the four network affiliates – a 7 or 8 rating dominates these days – but maintaining an overall audience is considered a victory, when traditional media, including newspapers, are struggling for a foothold.
Beyond management's keen insights and good looks, station executives attribute the phenomenon to Austin's intelligent, engaged, well-educated, active populace, which apparently eats up local TV news. Thanks to this prime, upwardly mobile community, Austin stations also generate more revenue than their peers. Last year Austin ranked 52nd in terms of community size but was 42nd in the country in TV revenue, posting a healthy 10% increase in 2006, according to BIA Financial, which tracks the market.
But the Intelligent Audience Theory flies in the face of the reality of TV news, which appears programmed for people who are unsure whether to use a fork or a spoon with soup. In TV newsrooms, young producers are often told to write copy assuming the audience has an eighth-grade education. Recently that seems to have slipped to a sixth-grade level. ("Tonight a special report on how to cross the street – news that could save your life.")
"If the audience has a thirst for knowledge, they'll take the good and leave the bad behind," said Brian Benschoter, general manager of Time Warner Cable's News 8. "They're looking for what's going on in town. A lot of that is not highbrow news. It's nuts and bolts information of the day."
On one level, the numbers explain quite a bit about the quality of newscasts. Danny Baker, general manager of Fox affiliate KTBC, says local newscasts rank "among the Top 10 markets in quality." Without the daily dose of crime and mayhem found in bigger cities, Austin "news staffs have to be more enterprising," he said.
And that's the bizarre little twist of Austin TV news: They don't want to change because they think it's working. They can shrink budgets, hire blank-eyed twentysomethings to report the news, and slice out all evidence of personality and originality from newscasts, and lo and behold, the audience still watches. Take that, all you dumbass critics.