Acquiring news

Local TV ownership consolidation zooms ahead--to what effect on the quality of local news?

In May, I took a look at the rapid consolidation of local TV ownership, and how last year’s windfall from political advertising was helping big companies buy up stations. I noted that experts and executives have predicted that local broadcast TV, which remains America’s leading source of local news, will soon be owned by a handful of “super groups,” while smaller companies are swallowed up or go out of business.

It turns out that the wave of mergers and acquisitions since the 2012 election season that I wrote about in last month’s story may have only been the beginning.

In the weeks since that post was published, another major merger was announced. The broadcasters Media General and Young Broadcasting have agreed to merge, creating a new entity with 30 stations that will reach 14% of US households. The company will be known as Media General.

In addition, the Sinclair Broadcasting Group’s ongoing buying spree—which included the acquisition in April of Fisher Communications and its 20 local stations—has made the group into the third most lucrative broadcast company in the country, ahead of ABC and NBC. When the Fisher stations are added, Sinclair will own or manage more than 130 stations around the country. Its reach, which already extends to more than 37 percent of American households, will come perilously close to the limit of 39 percent set by the Federal Communications Commission.

Media policy advocacy groups such as Free Press contend that the growing consolidation of local television limits the diversity of perspectives reaching the public, and often leads local news to be cut back in favor of content produced for a mass audience.

The National Association of Broadcasters, an industry trade group, notes that its field is far less consolidated than its competitors in cable and satellite television, which are dominated by a small handful of providers.

As consolidation among local broadcasters continues—and holds the potential to reshape the industry—it will be critical to obtain clear, empirical information about its effects on the quality of local news. CJR will be watching as these changes take place, and seeking to explain their growing impact.

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Sasha Chavkin covers political money and influence for CJR's United States Project, our politics and policy desk. He has written for ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, and The New York World. Follow him on Twitter @sashachavkin.