Cable's local news channels are steering away from
broadcast's formula for nightly newscasts -- which has typically been, "If it
bleeds, it leads" -- according to a study by watchdog group Rocky Mountain Media
The Denver-based organization found that regional and local
cable news channels are airing 20 percent more news, 15 percent less advertising and less
violent and trivial content than TV stations.
The survey monitored 21 local news channels June 23, and it
gave particularly high marks for quality to Las Vegas One, New York 1 News, News 12 Long
Island and New England Cable News.
"Creativity, wisdom, excellence, balance and depth are
among the values that have, for too long, been missing in action from local television
news," the study said. "Some local-news-on-cable stations appear to be
incorporating these elements into their shows, a welcome development."
RMMW has monitored the content of local newscasts on
over-the-air TV stations for five years now, and the group has taken those broadcasters to
task for airing so much tabloid-style crime news.
In fact, the watchdog group tracks what it calls the
"Mayhem Index," or the percent of news time dedicated to stories on crime,
disaster, war and terrorism; and the "Fluff Index," or the portion of airtime
given to promos, anchor chatter, soft news and celebrity stories.
"The local-news-on-cable sample, taken as a whole,
represents some improvements in this pattern of excess, with more news content, less
commercials, slightly less violent content, more PSAs [public-service announcements] and
less 'happy talk' and silly soft news," the study found.
Overall, the 21 local cable newscasts contained more news
than broadcasters (50.9 percent versus 41.3 percent) and fewer ads (24 percent versus 31.4
percent), according to the survey. For cable, the Mayhem Index was 29.5 percent of local
cable's news, which is 25 percent less than TV stations did in a 1998 survey.
NECN president Phil Balboni, who is past chairman of the
Association of Regional News Channels, was heartened by the RMMW's findings about how
local cable news networks differ from broadcast.
"It does reflect the policy decisions and effort many
of us have made to try to take a different direction," Balboni said. "We're
trying to be local and to have a wider agenda with our stories. It's nice to see that
reflected in their survey."
At the same time, Balboni noted that studies such as the
most recent one can only look at a very small amount of the programming being done by
local cable news channels. "We're always happy to be praised, but we don't
let it go to our head," Balboni said.
NY1 senior vice president and general manager Steve Paulus
said he would have preferred if the survey sampled the networks for a longer period of
time, rather than just taking a snapshot look at a one-hour-or-less newscast on a 24-hour
news network. But he was happy with the positive attention.
"People are starting to recognize regional news
channels as a force to be reckoned with," Paulus said. "We welcome that."
Among its findings, the RMMW survey reported that
cable's local news channels depart from the typical dual male/female news-anchor
teams that TV stations often rely on.
"This cuts down on the opportunity for chitchat or
'happy talk,' as well as saving the station considerable salary expenses,"
the study said.
But the RMMW survey found that cable news channels are just
like their broadcast counterparts in that they have a "preponderance of male anchors
and white-male sources."
The watchdog group said its previous studies have found
that almost one-half of the nightly news on broadcast is about violent topics, although
some TV stations -- most notably in Austin, Texas; Orlando, Fla.; and Tucson, Ariz. -- are
purposely abandoning that tack.
"Local news on cable is another force challenging the
status quo," the study said. "Here news may be available 24 hours a day, and the
emphasis on anchor personality that pervades over-the-air local TV news is
Paul Klite, executive director for the watchdog group, said
local news is very profitable for TV stations, generating one-half or more of most
stations' income, but its viewership is starting to decline.
"This is a big, profitable industry, local TV news,
and other people want a piece of the action," Klite said.
But local cable news networks are breaking the old mold to
compete with broadcast.
"We did identify some excellent, intelligent and
serious news shows -- like NY1, News 12, NECN, Las Vegas One and City Pulse 24 [a local
news network in Toronto] -- that can successfully nibble at the heels of the profitable
local-TV-news industry," the RMMW study said. "Certainly, there is room for even
The study lauded Las Vegas One -- a joint venture of the Las
Vegas Sun, Cox Communications Inc. and KLAS -- saying that its newscast "is
impressive in several parameters." News accounted for 65.4 percent of its airtime.
NY1, which is owned by Time Warner Inc., won accolades from
the study for several in-depth reports on the New York City public schools, subway crime,
tour buses, Trump Tower and lead paint.
And News 12 Long Island, which is owned by Cablevision
Systems Corp., was complimented for its "jam-packed, no-nonsense newscast" in