"They say the stories aren't telling them anything they don't already know. They're put off by what strikes them as superficial."
Philadelphians are no exception, judging by the results of the May sweeps.
All four network-owned stations suffered major losses weekdays at 6 and 11 p.m. (or 10 p.m. for Fox29) compared to the same period a year ago, according to figures provided by Nielsen Media Research.
At 6, the combined audience for KYW3, 6ABC and NBC10 fell to 630,000 from 695,000, a 9.4 percent decline.
At 11, with Fox29's Ten O'Clock News included, viewership dropped to 1.032 million from 1.202 million, a whopping 14.1 percent plunge.
Where did those viewers go? Not to cable, or to other broadcast stations. According to Nielsen, they turned off their sets.
Viewership for all programs at 6 and 11 p.m. in our town, the country's fourth-largest TV market, plummeted by 21 percent and 11 percent respectively from May 2006 to May 2007.
Philly stations were not alone in their misery. Their brethren in No. 1 New York, No. 2 Los Angeles, and No. 3 Chicago all took hits in their early and late newscasts.
Executives from CBS3, 6ABC, NBC10 and Fox29 all declined to be interviewed for this article.
Nationally, many stations have been disputing their ratings for months, questioning Nielsen's sampling protocol.
In May 2005, the company began using "local people meters," electronic boxes that record automatically what each family member is watching, using a representative sample. In our area, it's 800 homes.
LPMs replaced "passive meters," which recorded what was showing on the set, but not who was watching. In addition, viewers from a 1,200-home sample (in Philly) filled out paper diaries with their choices.
As a result, viewer numbers plummeted, across the board and across the country. Stations say the new system isn't accurate. Nielsen says it's more accurate than the one it replaced.
Squabbles with Nielsen are nothing new for local stations, says PEJ's Rosenstiel. "If you attack the messenger, you certainly blunt the message."
PEJ studies Nielsen data from about 600 stations in all 210 U.S. markets. Over the last several years, "we're seeing a gradual and systematic downturn of ratings in local TV news," Rosenstiel said. "The data are clear."
First, the obvious suspects. We get our news instantly online, or on other platforms. We're doing other things at 6 and 11. We have longer commutes, so we go to bed and wake up earlier.
News "is no longer appointment viewing," says Tom Petner, director of Temple University's Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab and a former local news director.
"There's more scanning going on. It's almost like a convenience store - grab 'n' go."
Content is another factor, says Rosenstiel. According to several recent studies, local stations' heavy emphasis on murder and mayhem - "police scanner journalism" - alienates viewers, he says.
Part of the problem, says Temple's Petner, is that local stations produce so much news on a daily basis, they don't have enough staff to generate different stories for every broadcast.
"If you're going to deliver all that news, you'd better be damn sure it's compelling," Petner says. "With eight to 10 reporters, maximum, working the street at one time, you can't generate enough content."
In this market, Fox29 produces 61/2 hours' live news every weekday. NBC10 does five hours; CBS3 and 6ABC each do 41/2.
Don't look for those numbers to shrink soon. Despite lower ratings and higher expenses, local news continues to generate big bucks.
Stations keep all their ad revenue. Costs are amortized across multiple shows, done by the same staff. "It's still a very attractive business," says PEJ's Rosenstiel.
Imagewise, local news is vital to a station's identity in the marketplace.
The 6 and 11 p.m. shows "are still the most powerful engines of any station," says Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association.
Those engines still command attention.
In a survey conducted by Ball State University for the news directors association last year, more than 65 percent of respondents said they got most of their news from local TV. The biggest draw: weather.
Newspapers were second, at 28 percent, followed by network TV news, local radio news, and the Internet. The survey included 1,016 adults from 18 to 65-plus, with more than 50 percent between 18 and 34.
Local TV news, like its network counterpart, skews geriatric in the eyes of the pre-Social Security crowd.
"They explain stuff everybody already knows to the old and infirm," says Drew Curtis, 34, founder of the wildly successful and irreverent fark.com and author of It's Not News, It's Fark: How Mass Media Tries to Pass Off Crap as News. "It turns people off."
Off, maybe, but not forgotten.
To Temple's Petner, local TV news is "a noble enterprise" and it will stick around. The issue stations face is the same for all media: how to enhance value without diluting the original brand.
That one "is sneaking up very quickly" on local TV managers, he says. "They're shrugging their shoulders, trying to figure out where the viewers have gone."
Contact staff writer Gail Shister at 215-854-2224 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/gailshister.