The Changing Role of Local Television Sports

Submitted by: Dr. Brad Schultz & Mary Lou Sheffer

Abstract

A study was conducted to assess how the sports segment within the local television newscast is changing. Literature suggests that many stations are eliminating or otherwise revising the sports segment in response to industry conditions.

Results indicated changes but more in terms of style and presentation than in time allotment. The sports segment is emphasizing more localism and appealing to casual fans. Major factors for change were audience ratings and competition from all-sports networks. The implication of these changes for the broadcast industry and journalism education were discussed.

Introduction

If there has been a constant throughout the history of television in the U.S., it has been local news. Almost from the time stations first signed on the air, they began delivering local news in which sports has always had an integral role. Lacking a consistent source of programming in these early days, many stations turned to sports to fill their broadcasting schedule. WNBT television in New York signed on the air in July 1941, and its very first telecast was a professional baseball game (“NBC history,” 2003). In developing local newscasts to suit their audiences, these stations usually included sports and weather. In 1961, for example, WKMG started the first full-time news department in Orlando. The newscast included a sports report by Frank Vaught (“The history of,” 2003).

Sports maintained an unchallenged position in the local newscast for several years, but recent trends within the industry have called this position into question. Fragmenting audiences, changing demographics, and declining news profitability have caused stations to reexamine their local sports segment. “Sports is one of the last areas of TV where people do things the way they’ve always done them,” says television executive Elliott Wiser. “(Today) you have to have a new approach” (Deggans, 2000).

The Problem for Local TV News

Several factors have combined to threaten the supremacy of television as the main provider of news for Americans. According to a study conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (2002), television newscasts are losing viewers. In 1998, two-thirds of stations reported a decline in viewership for their local newscasts. By 2002, that number had risen to 76%. Even in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in September 2001, local news viewership fell seven percent.

The emergence of media sources such as the Internet, cable channels, and home satellite has given viewers a news alternative. According to research from the Radio and Television News Director’s Association (“Changing channels,” 1996), a “significant portion of the public tunes into a variety of other sources on a regular basis.”

As more and more stations become controlled by larger media companies, local television news has also become more bottom-line oriented. In the first few weeks of 2002, for example, three station groups decided to completely eliminate local news at their subsidiary stations (Trigoboff, 2002). “I think there’s going to be a shakeout,” said television news consultant Jim Willi. “Do we really need to have four or five newscasts in the same market at the same time?” (Trigoboff, 2002).

The Problem for Local TV Sports

None of this is good news for the local television sports segment which has come under increasing scrutiny from station executives. Despite its traditional presence within the local newscast, sports has long been considered a “tune out” factor. A survey by the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation indicated that only 31% of viewers said they were ‘very interested’ in the sports segment while 32% said they were ‘somewhat interested’ (“Journalism and ethics,” 1998). This compared to 72% who expressed an interest in the weather. “Sports is extremely polarizing,” said television news consultant Brent Magid. “The majority can either take it or leave it, or despise it” (Greppi, 2002).

Research suggests that women have much less interest in the sports segment compared to men (Gantz and Wenner, 1991, Perse, 1992), and many stations have acted accordingly. In 2000, WTSP in Tampa dropped sports from both of its early evening newscasts. According to station news director Jim Church, “Telling a story when nobody’s listening is not a good use of air time” (Deggans, 2000).

While some stations have eliminated sports, others have reduced the time allotted for it. Depending on the day of the week (weekends get more sports time), sports segments have traditionally received anywhere from three to five minutes of the local newscast. Now that number has dropped to as little as a minute. In 2002, KDKA in Pittsburgh reduced its time commitment to only three and a half minutes of sports for its three hours of news. Others in the industry have implemented new approaches such as sports stories that focus more on people than scores, or that cater to more of a news audience. “What we’re trying to do now is treat sports more as news,” says KDKA news director Al Blinke. “We want to do the stuff that transcends sports” (Finder, 2002).

Research Questions and Methodology

These conditions prompted the following research questions:

RQ1: Is local television sports changing, and if so, how?

RQ2: What factors are most responsible for causing this change?

RQ3: Where does local television sports appear headed in the future?

These questions were investigated with a national stratified sample of 340 news directors. News directors were chosen because they are the ones with direct control over placement, time allotment and presentation style of the local sports. In total, 163 valid responses were collected for a response rate of 49%.

Results

Most stations (84%) reported that the local sports segment within their major evening newscast gets three to four minutes, and the time for sports is declining slightly. In addition, not many stations (70%) were willing to completely eliminate the sports segment from their newscasts.

While time did not appear to be a factor, stations are considering changes to style, presentation, and content. The overwhelming response was more emphasis on local sports coverage and less coverage of national sports (62%), followed by more feature-oriented stories (14%).

The results of a correlation indicated that audience perception of the sports segment (r=.45, r2 = .20, p < 0.01) and ratings (r = .43, r2 = .18, p < 0.01) were the most influential factors for stations that changed the time allotted for sports. The higher the audience ratings and perception of the sports segment, the more time the station devoted to sports. Stations that viewed other all-sports networks as detrimental (r = -.40, r2 = .16, p < 0.01) were much more likely to reduce the time allotted to sports. A multiple regression indicated that after controlling for financial stability and audience perception, audience ratings (b = -.11, p = .04) and all-sports networks (b = -.29, p < .001) were significant predictive factors.

The majority of news directors (63%) believed that the sports segment will decline in importance and time allotment in the future. Another 27% said that no significant changes will take place, while only 2% said that sports would increase in time and importance.

Discussion

The changes taking place in the sports segment have more to do with content, style, and presentation than time allotment. Perhaps in an effort to offer viewers a contrast to all-sports networks, local television sports is focusing more on local stories, athletes, and events and making its coverage more feature-oriented and viewer friendly for the casual sports fan. Typical of the responses was the news director in the Midwest who commented, “We want sports to be interesting to non-sports fans. Here, sports is news, is community. Give the viewer local as opposed to anything the many cable sports channels offer. Only we can go local. They can’t.”

As for the future of local television sports, news directors were more pessimistic which suggests two distinct time frames for this study-now and in the near future, and while local television sports seems safe, news directors have it on a very short leash. One news director noted, “I considered eliminating the sports department and reallocating those resources to put more news gatherers on the street. I am reluctant to do so now, but may in the future.”

Implications

Changes in local sports may be a reflection of the tremendous upheaval going on throughout broadcast news. If the sports segment is no longer safe, what does that say for other news elements? “[All of this] forces us to reexamine the [news] model,” said CBS Group News Vice President Joel Cheatwood (Trigoboff, 2002).

On a more immediate level, changes in the local sports segment directly affect thousands of aspiring sportscasters. Stations that are reducing their commitment to sports are also reducing their sports staffing levels which has an impact on the job market. “[Sports in the newscast] is dying,” said another news director. “We have gone from two full time sports people to one full time and one who works news three days a week, and keeping that position has been a fight.”

Just as important, the change in the way sports is presented requires would-be sports broadcasters to learn new methods. No longer can sportscasters focus on scores; they must make their presentation more engaging for the casual fan. This is also important for journalism schools around the country which must take note of what stations want in a sports segment and update their teaching curricula.

Will these changes work or even last? Commenting on KDKA’s changes, sportswriter Chuck Finder (2002) noted, “Let’s reserve final judgment until September, when the Steelers, college and high school football seasons fully get underway. We’ll see then if the station . errs in clock management.”

References

Changing channels: Young adults, Internet surfers and the future of the news audience. (1996). Radio and Television News Directors Association. Retrieved November 15, 2002, from:http://www.rtnda.org/resources/channels/chsum.html

Deggans, Eric. (2000, April 27). Local TV eliminating some sports reports. St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved December 11, 2000, from: http://www.sptimes.com/News/ 042700/Sports/Local_TV_eliminating_.shtml

Finder, Chuck. (2002, July 18). The big picture: KDKA-TV alters sports approach. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved November 20, 2002, from: http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/columnists/20020718thebig5.asp

Gantz, Walter and Wenner, Lawrence. (1991). Men, women and sports: audience experiences and effects. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media. 35, (2), 233-243.

Greppi, Michelle. (2002, August 19). Time out for sports? Local stations debate how much coverage viewers really want. New Orleans Times-Picayune, p. 9.

Journalism and ethics integrity project. (1998). Radio and Television News Directors Foundation. Retrieved January 13, 1999, from: http://www.rtnda.org/research/judg.shtml

Local TV news project. (2002). The Project for Excellence in Journalism. Retrieved November 15, 2002, from: http://www.journalism.org.resources.research/reports/localTV/2002/disappearing.asp

NBC history. (2003). WNBC television. Retrieved January 9, 2003, from: http://www.wnbc.com/wnbc/1169359/detail.html

Newsroom profitability survey. (2001). Radio and Television News Directors Association. Retrieved March 18, 2003, from: http://www.rtnda.org/research/money.shtml

Perse, Elizabeth. (1992). Predicting attention to local television news: need for cognition and motives for viewing. Communication Reports. 5, (1), 40-49.

The history of WKMG-TV. (2003). WKMG Television. Retrieved January 9, 2003, from: http://www.local6.com/orlpn/insidewkmg/stories/insidewkmg-20000911-122225.html

Trigoboff, Dan. (2002, February 11). Live at 11? Maybe not for long. Broadcasting & Cable, p. 3.

 


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