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a front-page story, the Times exposes a widespread but little-known
problem: Your local CBS station just might be producing the news for
your local NBC affiliate. Or your local ABC station might be providing
the news for your local Fox station.
Though the specifics vary from
community to community, the end result — copycat newscasts — is the
The good news? The Federal Communications Commission is
now taking a closer look at this practice. We need thousands of people
to tell the FCC that we want diverse local news coverage — and not the
same content on channel after channel. Please sign this petition
circulated by Freepress by clicking the link below!
SAN ANGELO, Tex. — Call a reporter at the CBS television station here, and it might be an anchor for the NBC station who calls back. Or it might be the news director who runs both stations’ news operations.
See the photo on the left of Lt. Christina Lopez of the sheriff’s office in Tom Green County, Tex., on KLST, top, and KSAN bottom, two TV stations in San Angelo.
The stations here compete for viewers, but they cooperate in gathering
the news — maintaining technically separate ownership, but sharing
office space, news video and even the scripts written for their nightly
news anchors. That is why viewers see the same segments on car
accidents, the same interviews with local politicians, the same high
school sports highlights.
The same kind of sharing takes place in dozens of other cities, from
Burlington, Vt., where the Fox and ABC stations sometimes share anchors,
to Honolulu, where the NBC and CBS stations
broadcast the same morning show. The changes have drawn the ire of
critics, who charge that there are fewer and fewer journalists actually
covering local news. The agreements behind this sharing are also
attracting the attention of another group of viewers — federal
Amid stiff competition for advertising revenue, these agreements are a
“survival strategy” for weak stations, said Perry Sook, the chairman and
chief executive of Nexstar, which owns the CBS station here, KLST.
The rise of the agreements resembles the retrenchment of the American
newspaper industry, but it has been far less publicized.
Texas stations KLST and KSAN, though separately owned, operate from the
same building and share office space, news video and scripts.
See photo on right, showing reports on both KLST and KSAN about construction.
The Federal Communications Commission does not know how many agreements exist between stations, making it impossible to judge their effects. But Julius Genachowski,
the F.C.C. chairman, indicated last week that the commission was
beginning to study the issue. “It’s something we’re taking a close look
at the F.C.C.” he said. He sounded especially curious about what he
called behind-the-scenes cooperation between stations that
collaboratively sell ads and negotiate contracts with distributors.
But the owners of stations have gradually reduced costs and, arguably,
competition. Building on the longtime sharing of cameras and helicopters
by stations, the first “shared services agreements,” for newsrooms, and
“local marketing agreements,” for ad sales, were put in place more than
a decade ago.
They became more commonplace, according to local TV executives, during
the recession, when stations suffered mightily and reduced their news
staffs, even while adding newscasts to create more opportunities for
advertisers. The agreements enabled some stations to carry out further
layoffs, and they continue apace, most recently in Toledo earlier this spring.
A University of Delaware study
last year found versions of the agreements in at least 83 of the
nation’s 210 television markets. (“It is remarkable that neither the
F.C.C., nor any commercial media data company, has an accurate picture
of the phenomenon,” the study’s authors wrote.)
The agreements are more prevalent in smaller markets, although even
cities as large as Denver have them. There, the study found, newscasts
on the Fox station and the CW station had the same stories, scripts and
graphics more than half the time.
The sharing is evident, too, in San Angelo, a low-rise city of 93,000
where the market price of West Texas intermediate crude is shown before
the Dow, and where hunting and fishing times are shown after the weather
The anchors are different at the NBC station KSAN and the CBS station
KLST, but they read similar scripts in side-by-side studios. It’s almost
comical, for a viewer flipping the channel back and forth, to see
identical segments about spot news and health. (The weather segments,
however, have different graphics and hosts.)
The anchors and reporters at the stations declined interview requests,
citing company policy. But Mr. Sook said the stations were a “perfect
example of the purpose of a shared services agreement.” Without the
agreement, he said, KSAN would have no local news at all, because it
would not be profitable.
Together, the two stations employ about 35 people. They jointly decide what news stories to cover.
“I don’t mean for this to be a criticism, but it really cuts down on
competition,” said Ty Meighan, a former reporter for The San Angelo
Standard-Times who is now a spokesman for the city. “Competition makes
the media better.”
KLST and KSAN have the only local television news in town. The Fox
station in town, KIDY, rebroadcasts the news from San Antonio, a
four-hour drive away. On the bottom of the screen, headlines from local
newspapers scroll by, the product of another kind of a shared services
agreement — this time with the E.W. Scripps Company, the owner of the
DuJuan McCoy, the owner of KIDY, said he believed such arrangements were
necessary in small markets. It can cost up to $1 million to run a TV
news operation in a market the size of San Angelo’s. “It is very
difficult, if not impossible, to generate enough revenue to justify the
expense for a locally produced newscast,” he said.
Advertisers, he and other television executives say, have new options
nowadays, including their own Web sites and pages on social media sites,
which cut out the TV middlemen. KLST and KSAN are like two flavors of
ice cream, chocolate and mint chocolate chip — intended to attract more
people than just one flavor would.
Public interest groups have criticized the cutbacks at local newsrooms
because they reduce the number of editorial voices in a given market.
They assert that because TV stations hold licenses to the public
airwaves, they have a responsibility to serve local communities. “The
same cookie-cutter content above a different graphic doesn’t cut it,”
said Craig Aaron, the head of Free Press, a nonprofit media reform group
that has gathered case studies of sharing by stations.
“Worst of all, maybe, is that we’ll never know what’s missing — what
dirt isn’t being dug up, what questions aren’t asked, what stories are
going uncovered,” Mr. Aaron said, calling the sharing “covert
Some station owners say they would prefer to have more overt
consolidation. They share, they say, because federal media ownership
rules forbid them from outright ownership of more than one of the top
stations in a single market. (Many exceptions exist, however, called
If Nexstar could own both KLST and KSAN in San Angelo, for instance, “we
could generate further efficiencies,” Mr. Sook said, “and some of that
additional operating income would be reinvested into the local news
product.” That outcome, however, would still diminish the media
diversity of the market, a major goal of the government’s ownership
rules, which are now undergoing a review.
Either way, for some people, the dearth of competition is an
opportunity. For Mr. Meighan, the San Angelo city spokesman, having just
one TV reporter at City Council meetings (rather than three or four)
gives him more reason to reach citizens directly through a city-produced cable channel and YouTube channel.
“What we try to do — what we’ve had to do, really — is get our message out through other means,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in print on May 29, 2012, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: You Can Change the Channel, But the Local News Is Identical.