Local television news in the United States is television at its best, and at its worst. In local and regional newscasts broadcasters and cable companies can fulfill the oft forgotten goal of public service, earning accolades and audience loyalty. But as the site of intense local competition and substantial advertising revenue, journalism and public service often take second place to ratings grabbing gimmickry. Despite taking knocks for its formulaic approach and irresponsible antics, local and regional TV news has grown steadily since the 1970's, and has, with CNN, stolen ratings from network news.

The earliest experiments with television in 1930 included simple newscasts, and the first stations licensed attempted to provide local news. Most local television stations began creating their own newscasts the day they went on the air in the 1950s or 1960s. Doing so provided instant evidence of community involvement and an identity amid otherwise indistinguishable fare. But early local television newscasts were brief and non-visual, for videotape technology, debuting in 1956, was too cumbersome to leave the studio and live news remotes were all but impossible for their cost and complexity. Some stations purchased newsfilm from newsreel companies. 16 millimeter film, while an excellent local newsgathering medium in the field, was costly and required at least three and a half hours to be processed, edited, and set up for the complex process of playing it back into a live newscast.

By the early 1970s color film replaced black and white, for viewers were buying color sets. Visual coverage of national news increased as the networks trusted their principal affiliates to cover important stories and send them to New York for inclusion in network newscasts. Until the mid 1970s quality television news remained the near exclusive domain of the networks, and particularly of CBS, for stations could not match the look or experience of the networks and rarely profited from news. Many stopped trying.

Between the mid-1970s and early 1980s came a local news explosion, attributable to a synergy of technology and economics. Technology led as Sony introduced the 3/4" video cassette recorder, a portable machine capable of recording 20 minutes on a cassette. With it came simple and reliable editing equipment permitting the rapid assembly of stories from the field. Ikegami and RCA produced shoulder borne television cameras to be used with the field recorders. Electronic News Gathering (ENG) was born, and by 1975 65% of local stations in the United States were using ENG equipment, though many continued to use film into the 1980s. The earliest ENG equipment was expensive, so all but the wealthiest stations adopted it slowly. Field camera and recorder were later combined into the most popular news gathering tool of the 1980s and 1990s, the Betacam.

The rapid development of ENG technology was spurred more by local stations than by the networks, a symbiosis between local broadcasters and equipment manufacturers which continues. With the technological revolution came broader conceptions of local news. News could be more visual, immediate, and exciting. ENG allowed for more preproduced material--news packages--allowing for more news and greater advertising revenue. The ability to produce news with greater quantity and appeal caused many stations to add newscasts and those with existing newscasts to expand their news operations. News became a local station's profit center. And with the rapid growth of cable television, many local cable operators established newscasts of their own, often in towns and cities not well served by broadcast TV news.

With an early and late evening newscast, at the very least, to be filled each day, news directors began to develop new strategies, and looser standards of journalism, to fill the time and attract viewers. By the 1990s, many stations produced six hours or more of news daily. The forte of ENG is its ability to record plentiful pictures anywhere, and get them on the air quickly. That ability brought the beginning of the end of quality television journalism as local TV began to present conflict or minor tragedy (such as accidents and fires--never in short supply) as the news of the day, and make stories shorter and snappier, especially when they are not easily illustrated. Having exciting visual coverage, especially if the competition didn't, often became the leading criteria for story selection. Reports on city hall or problems in the schools offered little visual excitement and consistently took a back seat to sensational but unimportant news.

From the mid-1970s to the present, newscasts have been fierce battlegrounds for viewer loyalty. Stations earn a substantial portion of their revenue from their newscasts and aggressively promote their news through the day. Popular syndicated entertainment programming leading into newscasts is used to deliver viewers to a station's news product, and a popular newscast, in turn, boosts ratings for an entire evening's programming. Stations peddle newscasts and newscasters with billboards and other local media. But when programming and promotional strategies fail, stations turn to high paid hired guns to deliver the audience.

These "news doctors", or news consultants, are blamed for most of the ills of TV news. As station owners added or expanded newscasts, or launched a new drive for market dominance, they have consistently turned from the expertise of their own managers to the expertise of consultants with a track record of ratings increases and a supposedly scientific approach. The best known consulting firm is Frank N. Magid and Associates, but there are dozens of others. For several tens of thousands of dollars these firms conduct viewer surveys and focus groups. The results--a vague indication of what a few viewers think they like--are used to rebuild newscasts from the ground up. Newscasts are made "marketable."

The gimmicks offered by consultants or newly hired news directors have usually included some combination of the following: News sets may be rebuilt to be more modern, homey, or just bigger than the competition's. Newscasters and reporters are often fired and replaced and if not, are always "remade" in appearance and on-air persona. Consultants maintain vast nationwide videotape files of news talent, and records of their respective ratings, to help clients find the perfect personalities. News directors and other managers are often replaced. Music, graphics, and other aesthetic elements are updated, sometimes requiring extravagant equipment upgrades.

Finally, a new format is usually adopted. The most grating of these, known as "happy talk" (usually under the "Eyewitness News" designation), has mercifully died away in most markets. At its height in the late 1970s, the format sacrificed the delivery of information for almost non-stop witty, sometimes prurient, banter between attractive, if cerebrally vacant, on-air personalties.

Other common formats, some still in evidence, include "Action News", with quick young reporters and barely edited video of the day's highly visual carnage, or "News Center", emphasizing reporting and relevance to viewers. Live news coverage, as stations acquire the technology, is invariably made the newscast's raison d'etre. This often puts reporters in ridiculous situations, filing live reports from long deserted locations, without the depth and quality a pre-produced report would provide. These trends evidence the emphasis on entertainment which has pervaded local and regional TV news.

Despite these variations in theme, the genre of local news in the U.S. has maintained an astounding consistency of format from its earliest days. Newscasts are divided into four or more segments, separated by commercials. News, broadly defined, generally comes in the first two segments, often including a superficial recap of world and national events when local news is sparse. News is delivered by one or two anchors (usually male and female), and contains a mix of readers (with the anchor delivering the story with an over-the-shoulder graphic providing a one word or one picture summary), voice-overs (with anchors narrating over videotape), packages (pre-produced stories by reporters), and live reports.

The third and fourth segments are usually sports and weather (with the one of greatest local interest coming first). Weather finds either a telegenic weathercaster or somewhat less telegenic meteorologist, maneuvering in front of a chroma-key wall, causing them to appear over computer generated maps and graphics. Stations unable to afford computers will chroma-key paper maps behind the weathercaster, a method one step removed from the earliest technique of sticking magnetic cloud and sun symbols on a large metallic map. Sports is usually anchored by an athletic male, who voices over endless video highlights of local and national games and "scoreboard" graphics. Finally, the news anchors conclude with a light or humorous human interest story, and a friendly farewell. Hour-long news formats and 24-hour regional formats have more segments, but add little in variety apart from extra feature stories.

If the lack of challenges to its conventions are an indication, local and regional television news achieved stagnation a decade ago, yet the genre continues to flourish. That is because it has long served a number of purposes apart from pleasing its audience--a task it rarely does well. Its most urgent task is to persuade audiences of its own relevance to their lives. For its very survival it attempts to demonstrate it is something that national newscasts, and other TV fare, are not. But localism alone is no guarantee of relevance, so occasionally local news resorts to exaggeration. Routine storms are presented as threats to life and limb, errant teenagers as deadly gangs. Populist or consumer advocacy stories often pose as news. Coverage of mundane school sports is used to draw children and their ratings-providing parents. In a trend of the 1990s, some stations have merged the content and aesthetics of tabloid newsmagazine shows with a colloquial reporting style in hopes of attracting a young audience.

Quality journalism is not entirely absent in television news, but rarely does it come before economic considerations. Active discovery of news, especially that which society's powerful prefer hidden, is inherently costly, giving rise to the common allegation that TV news legitimates the status quo. Such journalism requires the allocation of station resources and personnel over long periods to produce a single story, when the same resources can be allocated toward producing many stories selected through passive discovery. Thus passive discovery, the dependence on police scanners, wire services and other media, and press releases and news conferences, is the norm. Under the Reagan administration, enforcement of the Fairness Doctrine ended, and the Doctrine itself was suspended in 1987. Without the threat of official sanction for imbalanced reporting, news operations had the ability to move toward more biased and sensational coverage which could be more economical than attempts to provide balance, and more appealing to targeted audiences.

Television news prefers brief and simple stories and preexisting frames of explanation, for providing explanation and context costs time and money. Television's inbuilt advantage over other media--visual explanation--is rarely used well in local newscasts, and occasionally misused. Images provided to stations at no cost by corporate public relations firms ("Video Press Releases"), or by government, often find their way into local stories without credit, and ancient, irrelevant, but costless, "file footage" often illustrates reports. TV news writing is too frequently cliche ridden, uninformative, and of little relevance to accompanying visuals. Corrections and retractions are rare. But excellence in television news does exist, and is recognized in annual awards by the Associated Press and numerous industry organizations. In rare but remarkable instances local television news goes on the air full time to report on local disasters or major events. When it resists sensationalism and premature reporting, such coverage can provide vital public service beyond the means of other media.

Television news operations are fairly autonomous departments within broadcast or cable companies. The senior manager of the news department is the news director, and may be assisted by one or more executive producers. These individuals are responsible for controlling the general look and feel of their newscast while satisfying the demands of their corporate superiors. Control of day to day newsgathering operations is the domain of the assignment editor--an individual with the unenviable task of keeping appraised of all the news, all the time, and ensuring that everything of importance is covered. As the center of incoming information and the dispatcher of a station's news coverage resources, the assignment editor has considerable power to determine what gets covered.

The successful production of each newscast is the responsibility of a producer, who in the smallest markets may double as anchor or news director. The producer must ensure that every element of the production is ready at airtime, and deal with any problems or changes while the newscast is on the air. In large news departments this involves the coordination of dozens of reporters, videographers (often also known as photojournalists or photographers), writers, feature producers, videotape editors, graphic artists, and other specialized staff. They work closely with the on-air talent--the anchors and sports and weathercasters--to develop the lineup (story order) of the newscast and write portions of the show not provided by reporters or news writers.

The technical production of a newscast is usually accomplished by a staff independent of the news department. Studio production is supervised by a studio director (or newscast director), who works closely with the producers and talent to ensure that each production is flawless. A well directed newscast is one that calls no attention to its complex technical elements. In larger markets the studio director coordinates a large production team, but in some small markets may perform a remarkable solo ballet of switching, mixing audio, timing, and myriad other tasks. This accounts for the occasional dead air or miscued videotape in these markets. It is becoming increasingly common for larger news operations to cut back on production staff through the installation of robotic studio cameras and other automation.

Local television news is highly dependent on new technologies, regional news even more so. Without the latest technology stations can neither gather news as efficiently or broadly as their competition, nor present as professional an image. But while some basic production equipment provides higher quality at lower cost than a decade ago, other important technologies require massive investment beyond the reach of smaller news departments. The next major development after the field recorder was the rapid increase in use of microwave systems to transmit live or taped stories from remote locations (also called ENG). Now all but the smallest stations operate one, and often many, microwave equipped vehicles.

Some technologies like newsroom computerization have improved the state of television journalism. By the late 1980s most news departments were using computers to write and archive scripts, at the very least. Many had begun to use integrated news production software designed to simplify writing TV news scripts, arrange them for a newscast, and deliver them to teleprompters for the news anchors to read. Television journalists now make extensive use of computerized information retrieval services and databases, and many television stations have established their own Internet addresses to provide on-line services and encourage viewer feedback.

The technology to most change the television news industry in the last decade was Satellite News Gathering (SNG). SNG made regional television news possible, permitted local stations to cover national and international events, and dramatically extended the newsgathering reach of stations. Local TV news was thereby de-localized. One entrepreneur, Stanley E. Hubbard II, deserves credit for beginning the SNG revolution. Domestic satellites launched in the early 1980s had the new capability of handling signals at a higher, more efficient, frequency band than before--the "Ku band". Hubbard began Conus Communications to purchase time on these satellites and offer it to a "cooperative" of local stations. The stations would be able to cheaply reserve satellite time in five minute increments to "uplink" a story from the field to their studio, and to the rest of the stations in the cooperative. Stations began to purchase sophisticated Satellite News Vehicles (SNV) to drive to the scene of major stories anywhere and transmit localized reports. Not coincidentally, Hubbard also sold SNVs. The networks established plans to help affiliated stations with the cost of purchasing SNVs (at around $300,000 each) in order to create their own cooperatives of live sources nationwide and ensure they alone would receive any important story a network-funded SNV produced.

SNG has contributed to a massive proliferation of visual sources for television news during the last decade. Stations may receive stories from one or more satellite cooperatives they belong to, their own network (if an affiliate), CNN (if they have an exchange agreement, as many do), international video news agencies (at the largest operations), other specialized subscription services, public relations firms, and their own news gathering resources. Stations may not always have the perfect visuals to illustrate a story, but visuals are never lacking. Many stations also encourage viewers to submit "news" they have recorded with their home camcorder. A final TV news innovation has emerged as the gimmick of the 1990s--helicopter news coverage. Larger stations buy or lease helicopters to get videographers to distant events quickly, to provide live aerial coverage of breaking news, especially the ever-popular police chase, and to serve as airborne microwave relays, extending a station's live coverage range. They have often become news themselves by interfering in and participating in emergency situations.

The proliferation of sources and the ability to instantly and inexpensively send and receive stories within virtually unlimited geographic areas gave rise to regional news, which has emerged in several forms. An early example of regional television news was an agreement between seven SNG-equipped Florida television stations to share resources and personnel, presenting an image of seamless statewide coverage to their audiences. In 1986 News 12 Long Island was started by Cablevision and other investors. Using a mix of ENG and SNG, the cable news channel presents 24 hour news coverage, often live, of the vast Long Island area. Other local and regional 24 hour cable news operations have since been created, including some carried by different cable operators spread over a large area, such as New England Cable News. Twenty-four-hour news stations, usually on cable, have been established in several large cities.

With the flurry of station sales and purchases taking place during the 1980s, station ownership by non-local investors became common. In a sharp contrast to the heavy investment in news of the 1970s, many news departments are run on shoestring budgets to maintain the illusion of community service at little cost to the corporation. In many small and medium markets, news departments operate with a staff of a dozen or fewer, and eager young reporters work as "one man bands," acting as videographer and reporter on the several stories they cover daily. Their salaries are among the lowest for college graduates. Owners unwilling to invest in news quality often close their news departments and counter the competition's newscasts with syndicated programs. Some news departments are experimenting with new ways to pay their own way. News or weather programs are provided to other stations in the same market which have no news department of their own. Videotapes of news stories are sometimes offered for sale.

Although brave attempts are made, television news rarely gains the audience loyalty it constantly seeks, for as many researchers have pointed out, it rarely understands its audience. Local television journalists produce their product daily with little knowledge or concern about who is watching and why (though they do better in this regard than their national counterparts). When stations do research their audience, they ignore the substance of their newscast for the superficialities. It is rarely determined how much viewers actually learn from TV news, but existing research suggests it is very little, and quite possibly not what producers intend. Distant ownership makes the lack of connection with audiences more acute. While television news has come far, a reorientation toward genuine local public service and away from entertainment and marketability must emerge before the genre can be considered mature.

-Chris Paterson


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See also Cable News Network; Craft, Christine; News, Network; Programming