Consolidation and News Content: How Broadcast Ownership Policy Impacts Local Television News and the Public Interests

  • Smith L
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Abstract

In 1999, the Federal Communications Commission changed the Local Television Ownership Rule, allowing a single company to own two television stations in the same media market. The new rules led to the creation of dozens of “duopolies” nationwide. This longitudinal case study analyzed the newscasts of one of the nation's first duopolies. The author sought to discover what kind of long-term impact ownership consolidation had on newscasts in Jacksonville, Florida. Using a quasi-experimental research design, the newscast content of two stations was compared when they were separately owned. After consolidation, content produced by the duopoly was compared with pre-consolidation newscasts. Sixty newscasts and 1,048 stories were analyzed to answer the question: Do the combined resources of two television stations translate into higher quality local coverage? Results were mixed.
The study empirically measured diversity and localism - two factors critical in the examination of broadcasting in the public interest. Diversity was operationally defined as range of topics, topic of “lead” stories, and range of voices. Results show the duopoly significantly increased its coverage of local government, politics, construction and growth but decreased its coverage of public safety and non-dominant groups. A shift away from crime coverage was seen for lead stories. There was no significant increase in the number of local sources or the diversity of sources (women and minorities) appearing in news coverage.
Localism was operationally defined as the amount of locally produced news, the geographic focus of coverage, the number of local reporters featured, and the amount of locally-produced enterprise reporting. Results show the number of stories and time dedicated to local news increased significantly after the duopoly was created. Allocation of reporters to news coverage did not increase. While the number of enterprise stories decreased, the amount of time dedicated to enterprise stories increased - a finding which has methodological implications for future researchers.
Results indicate that economies of scale achieved through local television consolidation may translate to higher quality coverage in some content areas but not others. The findings contribute empirical evidence to the long-standing debate between public interest versus free market theorists. Implications for policy-makers are examined.

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Authors

  • Laura K. Smith

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