Pandemic Offers New Role For Local TV News

SmithGeiger research finds that TV consumption trend lines are reversing, with more adults 25-54 now watching linear TV than SVOD streaming services. It also shows local TV news has become the primary destination for trusted and relevant news and information, a trend on which Dr. Seth Geiger says local stations can capitalize.

New findings from international research and strategy firm SmithGeiger show a resurgence of linear TV over SVOD viewing during the pandemic with Americans flocking to local news.

It’s a significant bump that local TV stations can convert to a longer-term, multiplatform trend says Dr. Seth Geiger, the firm’s co-founder.

In the March 2020 survey of more than 1,300 U.S. news consumers aged 18-64, SmithGeiger found that 85% of Americans have seen their lives affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This unprecedented event is disrupting daily habits, sowing confusion, anxiety and uncertainty, and driving shifts in media patterns as Americans seek out personally relevant information, with clarity and reassurance that will help them to manage and navigate this dynamic landscape,” Geiger says.

The research identified three macro-level media trends:

The Resurgence of Linear TV — In 2018, the lines crossed for the first time, and seemingly irrevocably, with adults 25-54 spending more time watching streaming TV than watching linear TV. Right now, this trend has reversed with linear TV resuming leadership over SVOD (both platforms have expanded dramatically).


Americans Are Flocking to Local News — Local news has become the primary destination for trusted and relevant news and information, with overall local news reach expanding 20 points (82% are watching, 91% are using at least one local news platform), daily viewing has nearly doubled to 35%.

Facebook Is the No.1 Frequency Platform — Americans are seeking out personal connections and Facebook is the primary platform for delivering connectivity (Instagram is No. 1 for ages 18-24), with 63% using Facebook every day. But the most frequent Facebook users trust this platform the least.

Local broadcasters will be keenly interested in two of those trends.

As to the migration back to linear TV, Geiger says both the expansion of local news and the season or series finales of shows like This Is Us and Modern Family are playing a part. He says it’s feasible, however, that in another two to three weeks those lines will cross back.

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Geiger says a key takeaway from the research isn’t just the resurgence of linear, “but the audience level of trust and confidence and effectively elevating your local news broadcast to being the de facto No. 1 source to help keep you safe today.”

He says the number of daily local news viewers has doubled since the pre-pandemic period with a significant expansion among adults 35-44 as well as an uptick among 18-24s.

Geiger says younger viewers are responding to a more audience-centric stance being taken by the industry in its newscasts “where we are going beyond reporting and extending into solutions and looking out for you.”

Local news is now seen as delivering more relevant, valuable and personal content than any other source, Geiger says, and the question is how to maintain that level of relevance when the pandemic abates.

Viewers will eventually return to jobs and more schedule normalcy in their lives, he says, with many not home for the 4, 5 and 6 p.m. broadcasts they’re consuming more avidly now. Anticipating that, Geiger says the industry needs to shift to how those viewers can be served on multiple platforms when they won’t necessarily be in front of a television so “there is still a sense of getting my daily news habit addressed by a local broadcaster.”

Geiger’s advice to stations is to increase their on-air messaging about their digital channels, “but it has to be within context.” That means positioning those channels in terms of their value in today’s need-to-know environment, he says, and emphasizing their importance as a kind of “early warning system” much as many now turn to station apps and websites around severe weather events.

“Decisions you should be making for your safety and your family’s safety are changing, and local news is creating a sense of some agency about what you can do,” Geiger says.

Geiger is also seeing growth to local stations’ OTT channels, though he said to a lesser degree than other platforms because of an inconsistent rollout by station groups there.

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That said, he sees the pandemic as a kind of “set the table moment” for broadcasters on OTT, which could play a more significant role going forward. “Time will tell whether this is the OTT moment like Hurricane Katrina was the streaming video moment, but it is certainly going to create an expansion,” Geiger says.

Further headlines from the study include:

  • Americans are paying close attention to the COVID-19 epidemic. Currently, 59% are paying a great deal of attention; another 33% are paying some/moderate attention.
  • Just about everyone has been impacted by the pandemic. Nearly two-thirds (64%) have been affected at least somewhat, while 17% have been impacted significantly. Parents 35-44 have been affected the most (28% significantly).
  • The pandemic is affecting everyday life. Overall, 81% have had their plans, their livelihood, and their pocketbooks impacted. One in five have lost wages.
  • Most Americans expect things to get worse before they get better. Just over half (54%) believe their lives will change for the worse in the coming weeks; they’re uncertain (50%), frustrated (47%), anxious (43%) and alarmed (43%).
  • And yet, there’s hope — 55% believe we’ll come out of this stronger, 44% can’t wait to go shopping and 39% say this has brought out the best in their family and friends.

“It is clear that the world has changed for most Americans, and that local news has played a critically important role in helping audiences to find solace, feel safer and gain important insights into how to navigate past the confusion and to regain a sense of wellbeing,” Geiger says.

SmithGeiger plans second and third waves of research scheduled for mid-April, including detailed information about new streaming behaviors, consumer attitudes related to coronavirus policies, federal and local government responses, as well as sports, entertainment and news content needs.

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RustbeltAlumnus2 says:

April 20, 2020 at 2:32 pm

Jeez, is this tone deaf or what? “New opportunities for local stations arise from the deaths of thousands!” Shame.

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