TVN Focus On Local TV | SmithGeiger: Local News Post-Peak After Virus

Local news viewership is still trending well above pre-pandemic levels say SmithGeiger analysts, but audiences are dispersing and fragmenting, especially younger viewers.

A third wave of market research since the coronavirus pandemic’s onset from analysts SmithGeiger reveals that while local TV viewership is still well above pre-COVID levels, audiences are beginning to disperse and fragment, especially the youngest demographic.

Seth Geiger

Dr. Seth Geiger, the group’s president and co-founder, says the latest wave of research, which covered May 5-6, shows that 18-24-year-olds have dropped away significantly from using local news as a primary source for coronavirus coverage. That number has fallen from 25% in March to 23% in April and 11% in May.

SmithGeiger’s first two waves of research covered a snapshot period of March 18-19 and April 9-10.

Geiger says the falloff of younger viewers follows a settling down of the pandemic’s initial shock. Early on, audiences had a keener desire to see how COVID-19 was having a local impact, and local news was ideally placed to share that information.

“Because of … the emotional uncertainty that was tied to it, we saw all demos wanting to have the reassurance of a known voice or familiar team explaining what was happening and what the impact was,” Geiger says. “As the pandemic has unfolded, we have clearly seen audiences becoming more accustomed to these disruptions, so it has led to a less unified way of getting information.”


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Audiences are generally shifting back to the ways they were most accustomed to getting information pre-COVID, Geiger says, and for 18-24-year-olds, that means Google, YouTube and Instagram (whose use has also softened among the demographic, Geiger notes).

As younger audiences pull back from news consumption generally, local news has taken the biggest hit. “The biggest expansion was into local, so the biggest retrenchment is happening in local with the younger demographics,” Geiger says.

Beyond the younger audience declines, the new research presents a kind of mixed bag for local TV. Weekly viewing, for instance, is essentially stable. Geiger notes 70% of Americans were still watching the 5 p.m. local newscast weekly, down from a high water mark of 74%. But daily viewing is down from 31% in April to 24% in May.

“About a third of the daily audience has gone away since the pandemic really broke as a life-changing event,” Geiger says.

“We are post-peak in this environment; there is no question,” he says. “But the trust that has been placed in local news has stayed relatively stable and is still at a very high level.”

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Geiger credits the deflation of local news’ numbers in part to fatigue and a psychological readjustment among viewers. Now the story is moving into a third phase, he says, which will follow reopenings across the country and their implications for daily life and is likely to further drive news consumption. So, too, will new flareups of the virus as they emerge, schools reopening and the latest dynamic to enter the unfolding national drama, the protests and riots that have erupted following the killing of George Floyd.

Until those protests surged last weekend, however, viewers had been settling into a habit locally of tuning in for two or three days a week instead of five, Geiger says.

Going forward, “the wildcard is how quickly the opening and shelter at home orders are removed,” Geiger says. “What is going to happen in that next phase is going to be critically important for people to understand and be able to handicap what is and isn’t safe for them.

“That is going to create a new wave of relevance and necessity,” he says.

SmithGeiger’s next wave of research is slated to begin June 10.

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