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Local News Is Turning Into Trump TV, Even Though Viewers Don't Want It

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Sinclair Broadcast Group — a media company run by a family of multi-millionaire Republican donors — is on the cusp of owning enough local television stations to reach 70 percent of American households. On the day that Donald Trump was elected, it would have been all but impossible for any single broadcaster to claim that large a share of the local TV news market. But Trump’s handpicked FCC chair, Ajit Pai, spent much of last year dismantling regulatory obstacles to media consolidation — including two rules that stood in the way of Sinclair’s desired merger with Tribune Media.

Sinclair has repaid this favor with interest. During the 2016 campaign, the broadcast company required all of its affiliates to air news stories critical of Hillary Clinton — and commentary segments praising Donald Trump — on a regular basis. In recent months, Sinclair has expanded the scope of such mandatory programming. Now, its member stations aren’t just required to broadcast the insights of the parent company’s chief political analyst, former Trump spokesman Boris Epshteyn; or analysis from conservative pundit Mark Hyman; or updates from the “Terrorism Alert Desk” (sensationalized coverage of recent terror attacks from around the world) — they also must force their anchors to deliver Trumpian denunciations of the “false news” that “national media outlets are publishing.” According to documents obtained by CNN, Sinclair’s stations have been instructed to air these “anchor delivered journalistic responsibility message[s],” as frequently as possible, so as “to create maximum reach and frequency.”

This isn’t how things were supposed to be.

Shortly after Sinclair unveiled its plan to purchase Tribune Media,  the New York Timesassured its readers that, eventually, the company’s propagandistic ambitions would be checked by market forces:

Whether Sinclair uses its expanded reach to push its conservative-leaning views remains to be seen. Any ambitions to do so would face significant hurdles.

For one, television, where ratings beget advertising revenue, is not a forgiving medium for dissatisfaction, several media analysts and specialists said. Because overnight ratings are readily available, Sinclair will know almost instantaneously if its programming is attractive to viewers or driving them — and advertising dollars — away.

“If you are not serving the community’s needs, you will know it, and you will know it fast,” said Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute. “In television, if you fail to serve, you will pay the price.”

So, why has Sinclair’s programming become more right-wing, even as it has expanded into more left-leaning media markets? Does the audience for local TV news tilt conservative — and thus, enjoy pro-Trump political content — even in Blue America? Or does Sinclair care more about promoting the GOP agenda than about maximizing its profits?

A new study from Emory University political scientists Gregory J. Martin and Josh McCrain suggests that both of these explanations are wrong: The ideological bent of Sinclair’s programming does turn off local news viewers — but broadcasting such unpopular, ideological content is (probably) a good business decision for the company, anyway.

Martin and McCrain analyzed the content and ratings of 743 local television stations over the final eight months of 2017 — a period during which Sinclair acquired a bunch of local channels, and revamped its news programming. The researchers found that Sinclair-acquired stations became both more right-wing in their ideological orientation (as calculated by “text-based measures of ideological slant”) and more focused on national politics (as opposed to local politics) than their competitors did over the same period.

They discovered that the Sinclair-acquired stations did seem to pay a price for these programming changes — but not a terribly large one:

[Our] estimate of ratings changes at the Sinclair-acquired stations is negative, and particularly so in relatively Democratic-leaning markets where Sinclair’s conservative-slanted coverage of national politics has less appeal. In ratings terms, the shift towards national politics was costly to these stations: viewers appear to prefer the more local-heavy mix of coverage to the more national-heavy one. Nonetheless, there are very clear economies of scale for a conglomerate owner in covering national as opposed to local politics, thanks to the ability to distribute the same content in multiple markets. Given that the ratings penalty we document is fairly small, it seems likely that these cost efficiencies dominate in Sinclair’s calculus.

Later in their paper, Martin and McCrain elaborate on that last pont:

A conglomerate owner can reduce production costs, perhaps dramatically, by substituting nationally-focused and ideologically unified content produced in a single studio for locally-focused and ideologically diverse content produced by many local journalists. Even if viewers would prefer locally-tailored politics content, the fact that politics coverage is bundled with other kinds of content – crime reporting, weather, sports, and so on – that are less affected by consolidation mutes the demand response.

It’s true then, that Sinclair’s commitment to substituting pro-Trump propaganda for local news reporting costs the company viewers — but that commitment does not (necessarily) cost the firm profits.

Over the past four decades, proponents of lax anti-trust enforcement have argued that corporate consolidation is good for the American consumer, since megacompanies can achieve economies of scale that reduce production costs and, thus, consumer prices. But in Sinclair’s case, such efficiencies aren’t enabling the company to provide its customers with a more affordable product — only a more unpopular and civically corrosive one.

The United States is currently suffering through a crisis of local journalism. Regional newspapers are either dead, dying, or hobbling along, shedding resources for local reporting with each step: Between 2003 and 2014, the number of full-time newspaper reporters assigned to state capitals contracted by 35 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.

As print journalism collapses — and Americans increasingly view national events through an algorithmically customized, ideological filter — local TV news has assumed a heightened importance. Roughly 25 million Americans still watch their local TV news broadcast each night, an audience that dwarfs that of cable news. And such viewers greet their local programming with more credulity than they do Fox News and MSNBC; “local news organizations” remain the most trusted source of information in Pew Research Center’s polling on trust in media.

Local TV news has never been the pride of the Fourth Estate. But as one of few institutions of regional journalism that still boasts a functioning business model, it could theoretically play a part in filling the (ever-growing) void of state-level political reporting. Martin and McCrain’s study suggests that there is consumer demand for such information.

But the consolidation of broadcast ownership — that the Federal Communications Commission willfully accelerated last year — appears to be rendering such demand irrelevant.

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