For those of us who follow the broadcast industry closely, seeing examples of local broadcasters continuing to invest in their local news programming, and even expanding coverage, during the last few troubling months has been encouraging, though not surprising. We should all be able to agree that coverage of local issues has rarely been more important than now, as we work together in our communities and across the country to rebuild our economy after the devastating impacts of the recent health crisis.
The success of local television news in some markets comes even as the broadcast industry in general faces monumental challenges that existed apart from COVID-19, largely due to competition from unregulated high-tech companies openly competing for the same local advertising dollars. And, these successes come despite the obstruction of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which overturned well-reasoned efforts by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to modernize outdated media ownership rules last fall. In the face of these challenges, local news is one of the primary distinguishing features giving television stations their best opportunity to compete in today’s crowded video marketplace, and, in some cases, the best opportunity to help keep them on the air.
So how exactly are broadcasters using local news to gain an edge? While I am not endorsing any particular business model or company, one station group has taken a creative approach, and it has delivered on promises made to its Sioux Falls viewers.
Earlier this year, I toured the Gray Television Washington News Bureau, a news team of about a dozen employees based in Washington, D.C., that feeds station-requested programming—including national coverage of the pandemic—back to all of Gray’s local television stations, which are spread across 36 states and 93 different markets, including in Sioux Falls. Ask any Member of Congress or Senator from Appalachia, the Southeast, Great Lakes, or Midwest, and they likely know who their local Gray affiliate is, often as a result of the work of Gray’s Washington Bureau.
The strategy of sharing scarce resources to improve efficiency has been emulated by Gray Television within a single market as well and has been instrumental to help keep stations afloat both during normal times and recent events. Local viewers in Sioux Falls, prior to this year, had only three local television stations providing news, with one of the station’s newsrooms on the verge of collapse. That station, NBC affiliate KDLT, which hadn’t yet reached the “failing firm” thresholds under Commission rules, was poised to lay off most of its newsroom this year if it had not been purchased by Gray and combined with the newsroom of Gray’s existing ABC affiliate, KSFY. The buyout not only saved jobs but also led to a direct increase in local news programming and greater demand for news talent in this market.
The Commission’s approval of this small market combination was decried by critics, despite ensuring access to multiple local news outlets for viewers in eastern South Dakota. By combining forces, KSFY and KDLT now provide viewers with non-stop news programming from four to seven PM every weekday, with an expected 3.5 hours each morning coming next year, in addition to new weekend programming—a great outcome for local journalism and coverage of important issues. These changes were made even before the recent health matters transformed our way of life. Since the end of March, Gray also has added a first of its kind 9 p.m. newscast for the market. This is in addition to providing live coverage of past press conferences from Governor Noem and state health officials, along with commercial free town halls with state government officials. None of these programming changes that helped keep South Dakotans informed about recent developments would have been possible without Gray’s acquisition of KDLT.
This combined approach has meant that viewers in Sioux Falls have access to 35 percent more unique local news hours per week, along with a newly minted news desk in the state capital of Pierre (population 14,000) and access to Gray’s Washington Bureau for perspectives on how activities in our nation’s capital affect the state. More local programming also has meant the sale of more local ads, bolstering revenue that stays in the local community, which is especially important during this period of decreased advertising budgets. Contrary to popular belief, this combination of stations has led to lower advertising rates for local businesses, which are seeking to regain their economic footing. By recognizing that small television markets need flexibility that rightfully exists for some larger markets, the current Commission has shown that thinking outside the traditional media ownership box yields pro-consumer and pro-competition results.
Daring to save local television stations and trying to ensure competition in small markets through this approach doesn’t come without criticism. But promoting a positive environment for broadcasting in today’s media marketplace requires a broader perspective and a willingness to try new approaches to policy.