Cross-ownership improves local TV news, researcher says

Contrary to the objections of multiple consumer advocates and members of Congress, cross-ownership of broadcast outlets and daily newspapers in the same town has a positive impact on the quality of local news coverage, according to a University of Missouri-Columbia professor.

Jeff Milyo, an economics professor at the university’s Truman School of Public Affairs and senior fellow at the Cato Institute — a libertarian think tank in Washington D.C. — is the author of “The Effects of Cross-Ownership on Local Content and Political Slant of Local Television News,” one of 10 studies commissioned by the FCC as part of its regular review of media ownership rules.

In December, the commission voted 3-2 along party lines to ease 32-year-old rules restricting cross-ownership of broadcast outlets and daily newspapers. The move set off a wave of criticism and most recently was cited as a major factor prompting the House Energy and Commerce Committee to investigate commission procedures.

In general, Milyo’s study found that cross-owned TV stations produced a greater percentage of local programming news content when compared to other network-affiliated stations in the same market. Specifically, Milyo found:

  • Local TV newscasts for cross-owned stations have on average one to two minutes more news coverage than non-cross-owned stations, or 4-8 percent more news;
  • Cross-owned stations have 7-10 percent more local news than non-cross-owned stations;
  • Cross-owned stations offer 25 percent more coverage of local and state politics than non-cross-owned stations;
  • All stations in a given market, whether cross-owned or not, tend to have the same political slant of the home market of the station.

Commissioned by the FCC’s chief economist, Milyo’s study compared broadcasts from 29 cross-owned stations located in 27 U.S. markets to those of major network affiliated competitors in the same market. A total of 312 recordings from 104 stations were compiled from the week prior to the November 2006 elections.

Despite the findings of the study, objection to the rule changes has been substantial. It may be too much to expect a single study to change people’s minds, he said; however, as studies from other academics emerge confirming the findings of Milyo’s study, the thinking of opponents may change.

“Public policy should be informed by critical analysis,” he said. “People need to put aside their partisan objections.” To those who might question whether his affiliation with the Cato Institute colored the professor’s approach to the research, Milyo has a simple, direct answer. “I’m an academic scholar, and my stock and trade is objective analysis.”

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