May sweeps sees declines for local news

WGN News claimed victories in mornings, middays, and late news but like all news stations, saw steep ratings declines.

Ratings are down for local news – but not out

[Editor’s Note: This post was updated on June 1.] 

If you’ve noticed, ratings are down across-the-board for just about everything on linear TV these days. 

And yes, that includes local news.

As reported by Robert Feder Friday, three Chicago news stations: ABC-owned WLS-TV, NBC-owned WMAQ-TV and Nexstar independent WGN-TV, all found themselves in a first-ever three-way ratings tie among English-language stations at 10 p.m. in the key 25-54 demo, a very important component for media buyers and advertisers (Univision’s WGBO beat all stations at 10 p.m. with its Spanish-language newscast in the demo.) 

WGN posted a press release Thursday, claiming they had the top-rated weeknight newscast at 9 p.m. in the 25-54 demo beating all competitors – including those at 10 p.m., calling it a “historic” victory. The same release also pointed out WGN’s ratings victories in morning news and middays, and competitive in the early evening news races. 

But the biggest story out of the May sweeps wasn’t who won – it was the serious ratings losses at all local stations. 

As Feder noted, WLS did win in households at 10 p.m., but was down more than 20 percent and down a whopping 42 percent in the key 25-54 demo. Other late news losses in the demo were recorded by WMAQ (-30%), WGN (-33% at 9 p.m.; -37% at 10 p.m.), Fox-owned WFLD (-20%) and CBS-owned WBBM-TV (-50%), whose 25-54 rating has to be the lowest for any owned-station at 10 p.m. in recent memory.  

The tepid results mirrors a similar ratings decline in May 2014 as documented by this blog and TVNewsCheck. In the sweep, Chicago’s news ratings in key afternoon (fringe), evening (prime access), and late news time periods were down a combined 21 percent from a year prior, losing ground faster than stations in New York and Los Angeles. Seven years later, it looks like the ratings decline are even worse. 

So why the declines? In WLS’ case, it is likely tied to the fallout from their firing of top sports anchor Mark Giangreco, who was let go after he made an on-air joke about colleague Cheryl Burton. Another reason is viewers are abandoning prime-time broadcast network television in droves, as their shows historically provided a lead-in to late local news. The May sweeps showed tepid results for just about every broadcast network.

Another issue is viewers – especially younger ones, are abandoning linear TV for streaming services. Plus, the three traditional network-owned stations are now part of larger conglomerates who own streaming services and they seem to be more of a priority than the local stations they own, let alone the networks.  

ABC 7’s 10 p.m. newscasts are down 42 percent from last year after they fired Mark Giangreco.

But if you read the comments in Feder’s column, there is another reason that isn’t discussed much – the content of the news shows themselves.

Now, I know no one should put too much stock in the comments section of any article, but it does provide a snapshot of what viewers are thinking – aside from idiot trolls who cause trouble and have no idea how the business works (with gems such as “ratings are down for BET because too many Black people are being shot in Chicago”, and so forth.)

With that said, many complained about too much crime coverage in local news, but this claim is old as local news itself, and isn’t limited to Chicago. But as I’ve pointed out before in this space, some of these same viewers don’t seem to have a problem with Fox News and other conservative media outlets covering the same issue. 

Perhaps another reason is viewers – especially conservatives, are growing tired of the “wokeness” of local news, and to them, the firing of Giangreco was just another example of “cancel culture” – not to mention the accusations of liberal and racial pandering they often accuse the network-owned stations of doing (and this despite Giangreco making a joke about then-President Trump a few years ago.) 

Then there’s the continued racial controversies in local media with the Giangreco-Burton drama serving as a backdrop for Mayor Lightfoot’s decision to have only Black and Brown journalists interview her marking two years in office, which drew heavy criticism from already agitated white viewers in an already notoriously racially divided and segregated Chicagoland. 

But what does all of this mean in the end? Nothing, really. Keep in mind advertisers – particularly political/PACs (during election years), sports betting, automobile companies, and other marketers pay a premium to reach news viewers more than any other genre as this audience is more likely to vote in upcoming elections. The declining ratings are a concern to advertisers, but isn’t likely to deter them. This is why broadcasters continue to add newscasts – something broadcasters are doing despite a lack of viewer demand.

Local news is indeed down – but not out. While people on social media and in comment sections bitch about wokeness, constant crime coverage, and Cheryl Burton, nothing is really going to change in long run as marketers and PACs continue to find local news valuable as the genre provides them the reach no one else can. 

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