As befitted the city’s Puritan heart and neo-Georgian style, the city’s local newscasts had long been less flashy, and more issue-driven, than those in many other major markets. But in April of that year, a Miami-based media company called Sunbeam Television Corp. bought Boston’s Channel 7 (WHDH), which trailed in the ratings. The stories got shorter, the graphics bolder, the theme music more insistent. Viewers saw less of the anchors, and more of on-scene correspondents. Many observers noted a decline in stories that dealt with policy and politics, and more that dealt with crime, car wrecks, and child stalkers. During the O.J. Simpson trial, the station sent three reporters to Los Angeles.
WHDH began a sharp climb up the ratings chart. By late 1995, its 11 p.m. newscast was more popular than that of WCVB, Boston’s perennial news leader, and by 2000 its 6 p.m. newscast had nearly drawn even with ‘CVB’s. WCVB and WBZ scrambled to make up lost ground and, ultimately, adopted elements of their rival’s winning formula.
The past two decades have seen a marked shift in local television news across the country, away from in-depth coverage and toward speed and spectacle. Broadcast news, envisioned in the early years of television as a means of enriching civic life, has – according to politicians, media watchdog groups, and many TV journalists themselves – degenerated into lowest-common-denominator entertainment. Yet many who work in the industry have grimly accepted this: The market has spoken.
But a study published earlier this year – the most exhaustive ever conducted of local television news – suggests that the industry has severely underestimated its audience. In an unprecedented survey, a team of researchers under the auspices of the Project for Excellence in Journalism studied the minute-by-minute Nielsen ratings for newscasts from 154 local television stations over five years, more than 33,000 news stories in all.
What they found is that quality sells. The sensationalism of late-1990s WHDH, the study suggests, does bring good ratings. But well-done, substantive TV news proves just as popular – and often earns even better ratings.
Viewers, the study found, are perfectly willing to watch stories on education policy or tax debates – in many cases they’ll tune in to those stories but flip away from a segment on a celebrity divorce or a deadly highway pileup. And they’ll consistently reward in-depth reporting with higher ratings than more cursory stories, no matter what the topic.
The findings suggest that the shift to violence and voyeurism has left everyone worse off. Viewers, fed a diet of out-of-state car chase footage, are left knowing less about issues, like the schools, that actually affect them. And the TV stations, in clumsily catering to an audience they misunderstood, may actually be sabotaging their own ratings.
[Learn More: Boston.com]