Cable, local TV news largely forgo in-depth reporting, devote more airtime to low-cost fillers

Cable and local TV news economization efforts are driving US viewers away, further depleting already scarce resources. This self-perpetuating cycle, fueled by falling in-depth reporting, could mean that TV news is headed for the same uncertain financial future as newspapers.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | March 18, 2013

In fact, according to Pew Research Center report released Monday, one in three have stopped tuning in to a particular news outlet because of fewer stories and less detailed coverage.

Local TV ad revenues were at a 10-year low in 2012, even with political ads from the presidential election. This translates to less investigative reports, more opinion pieces, shorter stories and more weather, traffic and sports filler.

“These cutbacks are real,” Amy Mitchell, acting director for Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, told the Associated Press. “And based on the data that we’ve collected, they are having an effect.”

The report concludes that news outlets’ “financial future may well hinge on their ability to provide high quality reporting.” However, with less money to finance such journalism, TV news outlets are now devoting 40 percent of total airtime to traffic, weather and sports, a 25 percent increase in airtime from 2007. This means less time for edited packages and breaking news. Mitchell told AP that this increase at the cost of local news coverage does not bode well for the industry’s future because weather, sports and traffic information is readily available online.

“We are at a point where we have to get back to quality and think about what we are giving people,” she said.

Perhaps in an attempt to scale back, cable networks are increasingly dominated by opinion, which is less expensive to produce than original reporting. MSNBC’s pieces are 85 percent opinion, Fox News’ 55 percent, and CNN’s 46 percent. Now 63 percent of airtime during the day is commentary.

Stories are shortening, suggesting a decrease in in-depth reporting. In the 1998 to 2002 period, 31 percent of stories were over one minute long, and 42 percent were under 30 seconds. In 2012, only 20 percent of stories were over one minute long, and 50 percent were less than 30 seconds.

Breaking news coverage, which formerly dominated daytime news programs, dropped by about a third from 2007 to 2012. Fox News saw the greatest decrease in live-event coverage from 13 percent in 2007 to 1 percent in 2012. Daytime coverage is now beginning to resemble primetime with more opinion pieces and interviews. This allows cable news stations to save money from on-site camera crews and correspondents.

Coverage of government, politics and crime is also decreasing. Government and politics news dropped from 7 percent in 2005 to 3 percent in 2012, and crime news fell from 29 percent in 2005 to 17 percent in 2010.

Interviews are replacing edited packages at cable news networks. Airtime of packaged stories fell 20 percent overall, from 41 percent in 2005 to 33 percent in 2012, and interview time increased from 39 percent to 51 percent. CNN, which previously stood out among other channels for its high percentage of edited packages, is now devoting the greatest percentage of time to interviews, with a jump from 30 percent in 2007 to 57 percent in 2012. CNN’s edited packages’ airtime fell from 50 percent to 24 percent.

In contrast, network news “has remained an island of stability in an otherwise rapidly transforming media environment,” according to the report. It shows fewer signs of financial troubles, as their program formats and story lengths have remained relatively consistent since 2007.

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