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Research group says smaller is better for TV news

Monday, February 17, 2003

By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Bigger isn't better when it comes to local television news, a new study concludes.

Despite access to more money and resources, TV stations controlled by large group owners -- including the major networks and their biggest affiliates -- generally produce lower-quality newscasts than do their smaller rivals, according to a report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington-based research group.

And among the giants, stations controlled by affiliates get higher marks for quality than do those owned and operated by ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox, according to the group.

The survey is to be released today and is likely to be a topic of discussion tomorrow at a University of Southern California forum on media ownership. The session is expected to be attended by Federal Communications Commission officials, academics and Hollywood executives.

The analysis was based on several hundred hours of newscasts on 172 stations nationwide. It is one of the largest reviews ever conducted of the relationship between the size of TV station owners and the quality of local news.

"The study can't explain why, but the research suggests that more consolidation will cause a further erosion in quality," said project director Tom Rosenstiel.

Rosenstiel speculated that larger owners are more focused on financial performance and less able to keep tabs on the quality of their far-flung stations. Group-owned stations also may encounter more pressure to use syndicated material or to spend time during newscasts promoting network shows, both of which hurt scores, he said.

The findings are certain to fuel the debate at the FCC, which is considering relaxing its media-ownership regulations, including a rule that bars station owners from reaching more than 35 percent of the national TV audience.

The journalism group drafted the report in response to FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell's call for more empirical evidence into how media ownership affects the diversity of viewpoints and local perspectives airing on TV. The data, collected over the last five years for another study, were re-sorted over the last two months to examine the role of ownership.

Major broadcasters such as News Corp., which owns Fox, and CBS parent Viacom Inc. immediately assailed the report. They questioned whether quality can be objectively measured and noted that news shows produced by network-controlled stations typically attract the most viewers.

"Who are we trying to please here?" said Ellen Agress, senior vice president at Fox Entertainment Group. "The only report card we care about is the viewer. If we put stuff on that people didn't find informative and didn't like, they wouldn't watch us."

Among the Pittsburgh stations, Viacom owns KDKA, along with UPN affiliate WNPA, while Hearst-Argyle Television is the parent company of WTAE. Cox Broadcasting owns WPXI, and Sinclair Broadcast Group is the parent of WPGH and WCWB.

While Paxson once planned to purchase a station in the Pittsburgh market, it instead opted to buy its way onto cable systems here. Any FCC change in ownership rules could affect the sale or lease of Channel 16, which has been running the same lineup as sister station WQED since November 1997.

The study judged local newscasts based on criteria set by journalism professionals -- including enterprise, local significance, story length, sourcing and balance -- and then graded them, A through F.

Stations owned by small companies with three stations or fewer proved more than twice as likely to receive A grades than stations owned by the 25 largest owners. According to the report, 51 percent of affiliate newscasts received A's and B's, as opposed to 38 percent for the networks.

Still, the survey offered some ammunition to media owners and others lobbying to repeal or relax certain rules.

For example, it found that co-ownership of a TV station and newspaper in the same market -- currently banned by the FCC in most cases -- improves the quality of the station's newscasts.

The study also suggested that ownership has little effect on what types of stories are aired or the diversity of people depicted.

In addition, researchers said they were surprised to find that locally owned stations did not score higher than stations controlled by companies headquartered in other markets, deflating the argument by some that local owners do a better job of serving their communities.

Fred Reynolds, president of Viacom Television, dismissed the findings as a "matter of opinion." He said Viacom's 39 properties are chiefly run by local station managers, though they benefit from the corporation's resources, such as the ability to purchase helicopters and Dopler Radar to track the weather.

National Association of Broadcasters President Eddie Fritts, which is fighting against the networks to retain the 35 percent cap, said the study appeared to confirm his group's assertion that affiliates offer higher-quality newscasts. "It validates some of the theories advanced by our side," Fritts said.

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