No matter who prevails this Election Day, one tiny constituency can already lay claim to a landslide win. Thanks to our nation’s increasingly unregulated campaign finance rules, large media corporations once again enjoyed a tidal wave of political ad spending this midterm election, and none more so than the rarefied ownership of our nation’s local TV stations. But when it comes to the long-term health of both journalism and our democracy, these robust news profits are nothing but a hollow victory.
Just how robust are they, though? The final numbers aren’t known yet, but the figure for political ad spending this election cycle up through mid-October was $1.3 billion, according to a Television Bureau of Advertising (TVB) analysis. And that left out the final few weeks of frenzied political crunch time, which might mean the total could reach or surpass the 2010 mark of $2.1 billion.
But even if the total for TV political ad dollars comes in slightly lower than during the last midterms, local TV stations may still end up reaping more money. That’s because, according to a Pew Research Center analysis, they’re capturing an even greater share of TV ad spending this cycle. After getting four out of five political ad dollars in 2012, local TV has enjoyed a near monopoly in 2014, attracting an astounding 95 percent of TV political ad spending.
The reason? In a world of increasingly polarized media consumption, local TV looks to be the last remaining news platform that attracts larger numbers of viewers across the ideological spectrum. In fact, no other source of political news is listed among the top 3 preferences of liberals, conservatives, and moderates alike. As a result, a recent Pew survey found that roughly half—49 percent—of all Americans say they get news about politics and government from their TV, more than any other source or channel. CNN, with 44 percent, comes in second and Fox News, at 39 percent, comes in third. As for the big three broadcast networks, they only attract around a third of Americans, and a mere one in four look to MSNBC for political news. For campaigns looking to reach the broadest possible voting audience, local TV has increasingly become their best bet.
Coupled with Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United, this evolution in partisan TV viewership has essentially thrown open the political advertising floodgates to local TV stations. This trend has not gone unnoticed by media conglomerates. Last year, in preparation for another banner season of campaign ad-driven profits, media companies engaged in a station-buying frenzy. As this Los Angeles Times article notes, these big media corporations made no secret that they were targeting TV stations in swing states like Iowa and Colorado, where political ads can sometimes run non-stop in the final few weeks of a campaign:
All told, media companies spent $8.8 billion in 2013 to purchase 290 TV affiliates, a three-fold increase in station acquisitions from 2012. What’s more, a vast majority of this activity involved just a few big players in local media ownership, companies like Sinclair, Nexstar, Media General, and Tribune. As a result of this massive consolidation, the top five media companies now own one out of every three TV stations across the country. That’s up from roughly one out of seven a mere 10 years ago. In addition, thanks to years of relaxed FCC ownership rules (some of which were recently tightened), in many communities big conglomerates have effectively gobbled up multiple channels, narrowing the news perspective considerably. Now, joint service agreements between local TV stations in the same city or region exist in half of the nation’s media markets, nearly double the amount from 2011.
As these few media companies broaden their national footprint in search of profitable political ad dollars, news quality and diversity can often suffer. When the decision makers for more and more TV stations reside in another part of the country, it’s tempting to devote less and less focus to complicated local issues. It’s simply more profitable to load up the five o’clock newscast with generic news packages produced at a partner station or by a team back at the corporate parent. Which is why it comes as a shock, but perhaps not a surprise, to learn that as of last year one out of every four TV stations in this country produced no original news content.
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Recycling political news from across—or out of— town is bad enough. But the dirty little secret about local TV is that it barely covers politics or government at all anymore. According to Pew’s 2013 State of the News Media study, local TV devoted, on average, just 3 percent of its daily broadcast to politics and government in 2012. That works out to less than 40 seconds in a typical half-hour news program. So, if half of the country really is getting its political news from local TV, it really ain’t getting much of it.
The irony of all this is that the daily news hole for local TV—which is now around 4.5 hours a day—has never been bigger, thanks to a longtime trend of stations pushing pre-dawn newscasts earlier into the morning. What mostly fills this airtime, though, is ephemeral, commodified news focused on weather, traffic, and sports. Of course, during the homestretch of an election, political coverage might naturally tick up. But as I noted back in 2013, how effective can a few minutes of political news a day be against a backdrop of hours of wall-to-wall campaign advertising?
“The political ads that now swamp local TV programming every other year increasingly get little pushback from the local TV news that they appear adjacent to. SuperPACs and 501(c)(4) ‘dark money’ groups are no longer counterprogramming local TV news political coverage; they are effectively supplanting it. A voter who sees a scurrilous claim about a candidate in a campaign ad during the five o’clock news, in other words, stands very little chance of learning whether the charge is true or not from the journalists who precede and follow that ad on the air.”
To the corporate owners of local TV stations, this is not a bug, but a feature of our political system. They increasingly rely upon this lucrative advertising revenue to boost their bottom line. As such, there’s strong management incentive to both appease and not alienate these potential advertising customers. These motivations, no matter how many promises to the contrary, can’t help but shape news decisions. As this Los Angeles Times article found, the Tribune Company’s Des Moines affiliate, WHO-HD, chose to add an extra hour of local news from 4 to 5 p.m. this year, to create more ad opportunities for that state’s hotly contested Senate race. As WHO station manager Dale R. Woods put it: “We changed our business model a little bit to accommodate the political demand.”
Note the language there—“business model” rather than “news programming.” When local TV station executives think of their news broadcasts more as “inventory” to advertised around and less as chances to inform viewers or hold the powerful to account, then they’re no longer serving the public first and foremost, they’re selling to it. Moreover, when the local TV station is merely a line item on the balance sheet of a vast national corporate network, the institutional pressure to put revenues before civic duty only grows stronger.
Let’s not overlook that all of these big media companies have other agendas—often political ones—besides just making money. Consider the biggest independent TV station broadcaster in the country, Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which now owns one of every nine U.S. TV stations and more than 50 stations in states with competitive races this cycle. Sinclair, which achieved its top-ranked status after an aggressive acquisition campaign, is well known for its decidedly right-wing viewpoints and for requiring that all of its stations broadcast a half-hour long Swift-boating documentary about Sen. John Kerry during the last days of the 2004 presidential campaign. But that was no isolated incident. Sinclair also replaced regular network news programming with long “documentaries” that were little more than campaign propaganda for Republicans in the run up to the 2010 and 2012 elections as well. And one look at the broadcaster’s long history of political contributions, which go overwhelmingly to Republicans, should make it clear which party’s candidates Sinclair wants to win on Election Day.
This is what our election cycles have devolved to, however. To elect our nation’s leaders, wealthy 1-percenters and mega-corporations have been given carte blanche to secretly fund organizations that spend obscene amounts of money advertising on TV stations owned by other mega-corporations and wealthy 1-percenters. In short, our political finance system has become little more than an income redistribution model for the ultra-rich and a no-lose proposition for big media corporations. That’s why, on Election Night, they’ll no doubt be plenty of champagne toasts in media boardrooms as well as eager anticipation for 2016. But for the rest of us, we’ll once again be left with the bitter dregs of a democracy that gradually grows more disconnected and less accountable to the needs of average Americans.