Bigger isn't always better

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Study shows which types of news outlets serve public best

February 19, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Watch the news on a network-owned channel, and you could well find stories with little balance and little local relevance.

That, anyway, is the picture one gets from the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the pesky but well-funded Washington think tank that is the bane of so many news broadcasters.

This week, the group released a new study about what kinds of stations serve their viewers best, drawn from five years of gauging the quality of local newscasts from 172 stations across the country. It arrived at the following conclusions:

When it comes to media companies, bigger is not better. Bigger is worse.

Affiliate stations - those that are not owned by their networks - produce higher-caliber newscasts than those stations that are network-owned.

Local owners don't necessarily do a better job than out-of-towners.

Stations that have news operations that work collaboratively with newspapers owned by the same company also deliver better quality news shows. But these stations tend to get mediocre ratings.

In this region, WJZ is owned by CBS, which itself is part of Viacom, the largest media company that owns television stations across the country. WBAL-TV, an NBC affiliate, is owned by Hearst-Argyle, which is further down the list in size. Next comes Sinclair Broadcast Group, the Baltimore County-based owner of WBFF, the Fox affiliate, and then the E.W. Scripps Co., parent company to WMAR, Baltimore's ABC affiliate.

The study's findings would indicate that WBAL-TV would air far higher quality news programs than WJZ. The Baltimore Sun, owned by the Tribune Co., is involved in a heavily promoted news and advertising partnership with WMAR-TV. Stations participating in that kind of alliance weren't studied by the project. If a similar dynamic for the newspaper-television partnership were to occur here, one might expect WMAR to put on top-flight news shows with tepid ratings. But the study did not include Baltimore stations, so viewers get to draw their own conclusions.

Why does any of this matter? This year, the Federal Communications Commission is weighing how much to relax restrictions on media ownership. For years, the major media companies were prevented from owning television stations that reached more than 35 percent of the American viewing audience; from owning newspapers and television stations in the same town; and from owning more than one station in smaller markets, including Baltimore.

All of these regulations are under attack from media companies. They argue that concerns over too few voices in the marketplace of ideas have been rendered irrelevant by the profusion of Internet and cable outlets. But Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, says quality is hampered by size. "There are apparently some structural things about bigness that make it hard to have high quality on the air," he says. "We're basically seeing a thinning out of the product as stations are coping with declining viewership yet trying to maintain very, very high profits."

On average, stations owned by the largest companies take more stories from wire services and send out fewer reporters to cover stories. According to Rosenstiel's data, it's a marked difference. As rated by the project's reviewers, 65 percent of stations run by small owners earned grades of A's or B's. Only 42 percent did for the top 25 largest television station owners. (While no company was separately rated, that category includes Viacom, Hearst-Argyle, Tribune, Scripps and the Sinclair Broadcast Group, owner of WBFF-TV, which is also seeking to take ownership of WNUV-TV.

Any attempt to measure quality is necessarily subjective, and some broadcasters have taken sharp issue with the journalism think tank's approach. But their six barometers, concocted by practicing professionals, do not prescribe specific topics of coverage. Instead, they set certain goals to which most folks could subscribe: cover the whole community, be highly local, cover consequential matters, show initiative and courage, be fair, balanced and accurate, be authoritative.

Who could object to that?

Well, take Fred Reynolds. He's the president of the Viacom Television Station Group - including WJZ - and he argues that the best arbiters of quality are the viewers themselves.

"The movie Adaptation got a lot of nice reviews," Reynolds says. "Unfortunately, most people didn't go to see it because it didn't interest them." He noted WJZ's decision to stay with extended coverage of the snowstorm this weekend, instead of scheduled network programming, as an example of its commitment to the local market.

"The American people vote with their remote controls every hour of every day," he adds. "If we're not delivering the goods, then my guess is that we'll lose the audiences and drift."

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