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Sinclair exemplifies consolidation concerns in TV news

Posted: July 14, 2017 | Tags: Television news

Nearly 15 years ago, the five largest television companies owned about 180 of the country’s local news channels. Now, after years of dizzying buying sprees, mergers and billions of dollars spent, those companies own more than twice that — a pattern of consolidation that worries many, both within the industry and outside of it. 

Sinclair Broadcasting Group, by far the largest of these companies, offered a case study of this disconcerting phenomenon two months ago when it announced plans to acquire Tribune Media for $3.9 billion. This deal would land Sinclair an additional 42 channels in highly desirable markets, including Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. And, with those stations, Sinclair would single-handedly own more local news channels than the five largest companies combined 15 years ago. 

“This is a transformational acquisition for Sinclair that will open up a myriad of opportunities for the company,” said Chris Ripley, president and CEO of Sinclair, in a statement

Indeed, this is what concerns many commentators. Sinclair has a well-documented history of injecting its reports with conservative views; in some cases, the company has pushed so-called “must run” stories out to its staple of stations across the country. 

In a segment earlier this month, political satirist John Oliver lambasted Sinclair’s new deal and warned viewers of the company’s editorial history. 

“Sinclair can sometimes dictate the content of your local newscasts as well,” Oliver said. “And in contrast to Fox News — a conservative outlet where you basically know what you’re getting — with Sinclair, they’re injecting Fox-worthy content into the mouths of your local news anchors, the two people who you know, and who you trust.”

For the record, the conservative National Review dismissed Oliver’s comments as unwarranted hysteria: “So Sinclair orders outlets it owns to do things it wants. This is about as newsworthy as noting that fish swim.”

This time of consolidation and consternation is all taking place, according to the Pew Research Center’s latest “State of the News Media” report, as the audience of local TV news programming is experiencing a decade of declines. 

“Local television news programming has shed audience over the past decade, including this past year in most time slots studied,” the study noted. 

However, even with those ratings dips, local news still garners more viewers on average than both cable and network news programs. In a separate Pew study, the nonpartisan “fact tank” found that TV is the most widely used news platform and that local TV news remains popular, with 46 percent of Americans tuning in.

This likely has something to do with the perceived trustworthiness of local outlets. Pew found that Americans trusted local news organizations more than any other source of news — though, across the board, few trusted any source of news “a lot.”

On the business side, Pew’s “State of the News Media” reported stable advertising and increased newsroom investment. On the advertising front, Pew noted that local news channels’ revenue follows a predictably cyclical pattern, rising and falling with each national election and the tide of advertising dollars spent on campaign commercials (which only increased after the 2010 Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case unshackled corporate campaign spending).

And at least a small portion of this money is going to reporters, as their median salary rose 11 percent from 2015, up now to $41,000. 

The far-reaching influence and relative financial success of TV news companies (the very largest of them, at least), coupled with the last decade and a half’s blitz of consolidation means that awareness of the landscape, including the wider media landscape, is more important than ever.

Former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission Michael Copps told The New York Times that mergers like Sinclair and Tribune’s represent “another blow to the diversity of journalism that we should have.”

“It’s symptomatic of what is happening in this market,” he told the Times. “Fewer and fewer organizations controlling more and more of the information on which our democracy rests.”

This year, Pew is changing the way it releases its State of the News Media reports. Instead of the hundred-some-page reports it has issued in the past, the center will release a series of fact sheets, sector-by-sector. The report published July 13, for local TV news, was the third in this series. The Workshop will continue to follow these reports as they’re released in the coming months.

This report has been updated since its original publication.

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