In a digital age, local broadcast TV is the great sleeper medium, and it’s waking up nicely. Variety, the entertainment trade journal, wrote last month that the local TV chains will benefit from their “heft in the heartland regions that have taken on new importance in the media world following the election of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBiggest challenge to Keystone XL not political but economic Bannon encouraged Sessions to run for president before meeting Trump: report Fundamentals or euphoria? Both fueled post-election stock surge MORE as president.”
A study by the Pew Research Center in 2015 found that “TV attracts more residents than any other local news source.” That’s may not be a big surprise, but in a survey released last month, Pew found that local TV ranked number-four among voters asked what was their “main source” for news about the 2016 campaign. Fox News was first, followed by CNN, Facebook, and then local TV, which ranked ahead of MSNBC, NBC, ABC, CBS, and national and local newspapers. And local TV news enjoyed support from voters for both Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonDemocrats step up calls that Russian hack was act of war Comet Ping Pong shooter pleads guilty Time for 'J. Edgar' Comey to take his leave MORE (ranking fourth) and for Donald Trump (fifth). Fox News, by contrast, was 11th among Clinton voters and first among Trump voters.
In addition, Sinclair produces a weekly national news program from Washington, “Full Measure,” with Sheryl Atkinson; has put on more than 100 town halls on its local stations in the past two years; and runs “Connect to Congress,” which lets members of Congress speak to their constituents in Sinclair markets directly from cameras set up in the Capitol rotunda.
There is no objective measure of whether local broadcast TV covered the biggest story of the year – the changing tides of American politics – better than the cable-news and broadcast networks. But Christopher Ripley, Sinclair’s CEO, calls the proposition “undoubtedly true,” and from my own observations, he’s probably right – and for some obvious reasons.
As Ripley says, “All of our reporters live in the communities they serve. They go right down the middle of the fairway. We don’t have talking heads. We have anti-bias training. The way we are structured, bias can’t get in.”
One of the big problems with cable networks is that viewers have a difficult time distinguishing between opinion and news. CNN, for example, provides fine news coverage, but much of its prime time is consumed with candidate surrogates, politicians, and the network’s own analysts and advocates arguing to advance their own points of view. Fox News on cable does some good reporting, but its big draws are programs hosted by opinionators like Bill O’Reilly.
Cable network news, as a whole, is a more powerful source of political information, but local broadcast TV is remarkably strong. A Pew study last summer, for example, asked respondents which source they found “most helpful” for learning about the presidential campaign the past week. Cable networks ranked first at 24 percent, followed by social media and local TV in a tie at 14 percent, with local newspapers ranking near the bottom at 3 percent.
The persistence of local broadcast TV is an overlooked phenomenon. Even with many more media choices, people continue to watch. “We are holding our own,” says Ripley. Washington policy makers may never have heard of Nexstar Media Group, whose purchase of Media General was approved just last month. But the merger gives Nexstar 171 stations in 100 markets. Other big players include Tribune, Meredith, and Tegna.
Sinclair is a publicly traded company whose stock has risen 24 percent in the past two months -- compared with an increase of 7 percent for the market as a whole. Revenues last year were about $2.8 billion, according to the Value Line Investment Survey, up from $767 million in 2010.
The term “broadcast” isn’t entirely accurate since most Americans view their local stations over cable or satellite. One in five households picks up the signal over the air. A new standard, ATSC 3.0, is expected to improve quality and variety. Geoffrey Morrison of CNET writes that the standard will be a “hybrid system, where the main content (audio and voice) will be sent over the air, but other content (targeted ads, for example) will get sent over broadband and integrated into the program.”
Local broadcast TV continues to thrive because of reach – it has far larger numbers than cable in head-to-head competition. For example, Sinclair’s Salt Lake City station, KUTV, had an audience share of about 8 (that is, 8 percent of a market of about 800,000 households) for late-night news in Nielsen ratings last year, number-one in the market. By contrast, the typical cable news show (say, Anderson Cooper on CNN) has an audience share of around 1 percent. Top-rated shows, like O’Reilly or Hannity, are about 3 percent.
One reason for those ratings – one hopes, anyway – is strong coverage of the impact of national issues locally. For example, a post-election piece on KUTV about the feasibility of President Trump’s plan to deport up to 3 million immigrants, a piece that used reporting from the Washington bureau as well as Salt Lake City.
“People,” says Ripley, “just don’t realize how big an impact local broadcast news has.”
James K. Glassman has had a long career in media, serving as a Washington Post financial columnist, publisher of The Atlantic Monthly, editor of Roll Call, and host of three weekly public affairs TV series, on CNN and PBS.
The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.