Local Television In 2018: News Less Linear, More On The Go

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The local news hour is coming to a screen near you, even the one in your pocket, throughout the day.

Over the next five years, TV stations will produce fewer hours of news for their linear, broadcast channels, while increasing focus on mobile platforms for news delivery, allowing consumers untethered access to what’s going on in their communities. To fill the gap in their programming schedules, broadcast stations will experiment more with other types of local programming such as talk shows, variety shows, and local sports in efforts to draw wider audiences.

What is driving this change? First, there is an oversupply of local news, spreading audiences thin. Second, audience behavior is changing as consumers look to get the local scoop on multiple platforms and screens.

The Big Four affiliates in the top 25 markets currently broadcast more than six hours of local news programming on average per weekday; the next 25 markets average over five hours per weekday. These numbers have been slowly increasing over the last three to four years. That’s a lot of news, even before you consider the news and current affairs content offered on cable networks.

Meanwhile, local news audiences have been shrinking. Appointment viewing of local news has been in a slow decline as digital platforms have made it easier to obtain the same information (local news, weather, sports, and traffic) throughout the day.

With the volume of news programming increasing and the audience size decreasing, something has to give. Here is how local television stations will adapt:

1) More news on the go:  Stations will produce news content in digestible, mobile-friendly pieces that are updated continuously throughout the day. This type of content delivery will be more in line with audience behavior. Some station groups such as Tribune and CBS have already made strides in this direction.

2) More experimentation: Stations will reduce the hours of linear news content for their broadcast signal and experiment with producing other content such as talk shows, variety shows, and local sports. Developing compelling programming is not easy, but local television stations have a great platform for experimentation. Perhaps it will be satirical content (a local Jon Stewart?), high school sports, or local college sports where the programming rights are still affordable. Local stations know their communities better than anyone else and they can leverage that connection to explore new areas of programming. As an example of the experimentation that might lie ahead, we can look at how WWOR, a FOX affiliate in New Jersey, is handling the 10 p.m. news slot. Recently, the station decided to jettison its standard news program in favor of a TMZ-style newsmagazine called “Chasing New Jersey.”

3) More news resource sharing: The cutback in the number of hours of news will allow consolidation of news operations across stations, especially outside of the top 25 DMAs. In some DMAs, it is possible that there will be only two or three newsrooms left. Of course, some of these changes cannot happen without regulatory approval, as stations will have to demonstrate how they will continue to serve their public interest obligations.

Advertisers will embrace these changes because they know audience behavior is evolving, and they want content to evolve with it. They will also likely welcome more experimentation with programming as they seek greater differentiation in local TV audiences.

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