Breaking Down the TV News Industry

by | March 10, 2009

Local Television News: The United States is broken up into different "designated market areas," or DMAs, based on population and wealth. Today there are 210 DMAs. New York is number one, while Glendive, MT is 210. These communities are served by stations affiliated with major networks like NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox or are independent. Smaller communities generally have fewer stations compared with those in the top 10 markets, which may have as many as 10 stations.

Over the last decade, Spanish-language broadcasters Univision and Telemundo have been aggressively building affiliate stations, particularly in markets with large Latino populations like California, the Southwest and Florida.

Affiliate stations fill their airtime with programming from their network, buy the rights to syndicated programming and also produce local news programming. On average, those stations that produce local news broadcast from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., at noon, from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and at 11 p.m. Some stations don't produce any local news, while others are producing more and more of it. Local news programming is the primary revenue driver for most stations, as well as the only opportunity to brand the station within the local community it serves.

Network News: Despite the proliferation of cable news channels, most Americans still get their news from network news divisions. On average, over 25 million people watch one of the three major evening news broadcasts, compared with the 2 million people who watch the O'Reilly Factor on the Fox News Channel, one of the most popular programs in cable news.

Network news programming falls into two categories, "hard news" and "soft news." Evening news broadcasts, special events like the Presidential election coverage, and breaking news fall under hard news. Technically, morning shows like Today and Good Morning Americaare considered hard news, but with the majority of those broadcasts now filled with soft fare like cooking segments and weight loss stories, that designation is a stretch. News magazines like 48 Hours or Dateline fall under soft news or lifestyle-oriented stories.

Cable News: Network news divisions have increasingly turned to soft news because they have found it challenging to compete with the 24/7 newsgathering operations of CNN and Fox News. MSNBC is a partnership between NBC News and Microsoft. While MSNBC is third amongst the major cable news channels, it has provided NBC with the economic advantage of using one newsgathering operation to air content on two networks. CNBC also falls into cable news, but is focused on business news. During the late 1990s, it saw its ratings explode before the bubble burst, but has now shifted from hard economic news to more business lifestyle news.

Over the last few years, cable operations are turning to more magazine shows, as the networks have, in an effort to create more appointment viewing. The result has been a litany of talking heads and opinion-based programming from Bill O'Reilly to Anderson Cooper to former heavy hitters like Phil Donohue and Connie Chung, who have yet to reclaim their former glory.

Public Television: In 1960, the federal government established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, founding PBS as part of this initiative. PBS is supported by government funds, donations from viewers, and is underwritten by corporations. Some of the most well known PBS news and information programs include The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, Nova and Frontline. Unlike broadcast networks, PBS is a loose association of local affiliates that operate with a high degree of independence and control most of their local programming. Much of the programming on PBS stations is locally produced, bought from production companies or from other PBS stations.

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