Friday, May 17, 2013

Political ads enrich TV stations, which do little political reporting and fatten themselves for sale

Atlantic Wire graphic shows advertising
buys for the past three presidential elections;
Television Bureau of Advertising chart below
shows political ad spending on local stations.
Every election season it's impossible to watch television without being bombarded with commercials from candidates or interest groups, and TV stations cash in. But a recent report finds that smaller-market stations do very little reporting on elections.

Swimming in the record-breaking revenues of the 2012 elections, smaller companies "primarily used the political windfall to clean themselves up to be acquired," Carl Salas, of Moody's Investor Services, which issued a report on the phenomenon. "The revenues from political advertising really improved companies’ balance sheets, and they’re using that to dress them up to be sold.”

And it's unlikely that the large corporations buying those small stations are any more interested in local news content than about stuffing their pockets, reports Sasha Chavkin for the Columbia Journalism Review.

Mergers and acquisitions among pure-play TV firms — those devoted entirely to television and not owned by major networks — will likely range from $3.5 billion to more than $6 billion in 2013-2014, reports Chavkin.

In 2008 the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog, studied ads and news coverage about the U.S. Senate race on the TV stations in Lexington, Ky. We found that ads costing about $3 million consumed 115 hours of broadcast time on the four stations, which devoted only 3 hours and 50 minutes of air time to news coverage of the race, almost all of it superficial, usually with fewer issue details than the ads. For a report on the study, click here.

No Lexington station analyzed the ads for accuracy. The Moody's report on the 2012 elections concluded that "although many stations were producing valuable fact check segments that scrutinized the ads themselves, there was scant evidence that they were using any of the ad revenues to pay for additional political or investigative reporting," reports Chavkin.

Chavkin asked how consolidation affects the quality of local news. Advocates claim there's an increase in local programming, but detractors call that a myth, citing a new trend called shared-service agreements, where stations in the same market agree to share information, including broadcasting entire segments from other stations. In some cases, one station's newsroom does news programming for two stations. The end result, some say, is lesser quality in local news, Chavkin reports.

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