Broadcast Essay: Profits and the ‘public interest’: The impact of deregulation and local TV news

A television camera points at a blue screen

The Decline of Local News Engagement with the Public

On the left, a Black scholar with glasses smiles. On the right, an older scholar poses with his left hand under his chin
Left: Steve Bien-Aimé, Right: David Thomson

Journalism in the United States has experienced a tremendous erosion in trust over the past 50 years (Gallup, n.d.). However, local news media consistently outperforms national news media in terms of trust (e.g., Fioroni, 2022). That said, when we look at local television news, we’re seeing a drop in the public’s engagement with it. According to Gallup (n.d.), the percentage of people who consume local TV news daily fell from 55% in 1995 to 36% in 2019. Increased fragmentation regarding the public’s media use has definitely contributed to the decline. While media use has fragmented, there has also been tremendous consolidation in the past few decades among large media companies, including local television stations (i.e., Alexander & Cunningham, 2004; Barkin, 2016). Some scholars have posited that the quality of local TV news has declined with the relaxing of consolidation rules (i.e., Alexander and Brown, 2004; Scott, Gobetz & Chanslor, 2008), and so this essay argues that the media consolidation has contributed to the decline in local news engagement with the public.

            In the United States, local news is incredibly important when considering that the country is geographically large, ethnically diverse and governmentally fragmented. Globally, local news media help create social cohesion within various societies and provide pertinent information for specific communities (Carey, 2017). Within local journalism, relationship building is largely an interpersonal venture (Carey, 2017). The public has limited direct in-person contact with local reporters with 30% of people in the United States saying they have been interviewed by a local journalist (Ritter & Standridge, 2019). News consumers can connect with and develop relationships with journalists via social media (Greer & Ferguson, 2011); however when accounting for barriers such as the digital divide, we understand technology alone cannot be a complete substitute for in-person interactions. With the precipitous decline in local newspapers and reduction of newspaper journalists (Walker, 2021), local television news stations play an even more important role in maintaining civic engagement. However, there’s work to be done as a more recent study found that “getting news on TV is actually associated with lower levels of civic engagement” (Molyneux, 2019, p. 801).

            One key development that occurred in the past few decades was the continued deregulation regarding media ownership. For example, the Federal Communications Commission in 1953 ruled it considered “the ownership, operation or control directly or indirectly of more than 7 AM, 6 FM or 5 TV broadcast stations by any person to constitute a concentration of control contrary to the public interest. It is also provided that no person or any of its stockholders, officers or directors may have a direct or indirect interest in or be stockholders, officers or directors of more than 14 AM, 12 FM or 10 TV broadcast stations” (p. 291). However, the intervening decades led to business interests taking a bigger position in regulatory decisions (Krasnow and Botein, 1986). A 1983 Washington Post article said then-FCC Chairman Mark Fowler believed market forces would push stations into regulating themselves (Potts, 1983). The following year, the commission modified the rules based upon changes in the “investment community” while trying to “balance between inhibiting legitimate business opportunities and promoting a ‘clash of divergent views’” (Federal Communications Commission, 1984, p. 1002-1003). A contemporary analysis of media deregulation described the broadcasting shift thusly: “Fowler advocates a market-place approach under which broadcasters are viewed not as public trustees, but as market-place competitors” (Krasnow and Botein, 1986).

            Deregulation continued, including via the 1996 Telecommunications Act (Barkin, 2016), leading to today’s broadcast ownership rules: “There is no limit on the number of television stations a single entity may own nationwide as long as the station group collectively reaches no more than 39 percent of all U.S. TV households” (Federal Communications Commission, 2020). Additionally, a company could own two TV stations in the same market. While there are a plethora of stations, channels and platforms for “divergent views,” those divergent views are often under the same corporate umbrella: “Fewer than ten global conglomerates have consolidated media power on a scale never seen before, virtually turning the communications industry into an oligopoly” (Barkin, 2016, p. 4). Content has changed, too. Returning to the 1983 Washington Post article, the story quoted a local television station manager who said, “I don’t think that television stations are going to increase the amount of commercial time because I don’t think it’s in their best interest to do that” (para. 12). The Post noted “the average station runs only about 9 minutes of commercials an hour” (para. 11). Today, a standard U.S. television program is either 22 minutes or 44 minutes long (O’Donnell, 2016), resulting in 16 minutes of commercials per hour.

            One of the likely reasons for content changes is corporate pressure for profits (Barkin, 2016). The focus on profits can come at the expense of quality and potentially community engagement. In their report to the FCC, Alexander and Brown (2004) found that locally owned broadcast stations contain more local news content than non-locally owned stations, and locally owned stations air more content from outside the broadcast studios. This is important as the authors noted “local on-location news seconds may reflect a greater degree of actual investment in local news coverage, since on-location reporting requires the dedication of specific assets” (p. 14). Essentially, being out in the community costs more money than airing things remotely or relying on institutional elites. A Pew Research Center (2003) analysis said, “Smaller station groups overall tended to produce higher quality newscasts than stations owned by larger companies-by a significant margin” (para. 6). Alexander and Cunningham (2004) found a correlation between increased media market concentration and lower story diversity. Supporting these findings, another study reported that a small-chain television station had higher proportions of local news on its shows and had more “locally produced video” compared to stations owned by larger corporate chains (Scott et al., 2008, p. 94). This isn’t to say that large corporate-owned local media is all bad. Abdenour (2018) found that local television stations owned by publicly traded companies were more likely to produce investigative content.

            Overall, while local news media does outperform national media in terms of trust, deregulation has in many ways outsourced the mission of protecting the public interest to corporate shareholders, many of whom have little to no connections to the communities serviced by their local stations. Thus, these shareholders’ primary goal is often to enhance their profits, not enhance community dialogue and engagement, and by many metrics both have suffered.


About the authors: Steve Bien-Aimé is an assistant professor in the School of Media and Communication at Northern Kentucky University whose research interests include race and gender portrayals in sports and news media. Prior to receiving his doctorate, Bien-Aimé worked as a copy editor at The News Journal in Delaware and The Baltimore Sun and served in a variety of functions at in Los Angeles, departing as deputy NFL editor.

David Thomson is an associate professor in the School of Media and Communication at Northern Kentucky University whose interests include the inter-relational, psychological and emotional dynamics of media and society. Before moving into the academy, Thomson originally trained as a classical singer and worked as an audio producer and radio host.


Featured image: “Newseum Interactive Newsroom Camera” by Mr.TinDC is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit



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Carey, M. C. (2017). The News Untold: Community Journalism and the Failure to Confront Poverty in Appalachia. West Virginia University Press.

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Molyneux, L. (2019). Multiplatform news consumption and its connections to civic engagement. Journalism, 20(6), 788–806.

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Pew Research Center (2003, April 29). Does ownership matter in local television news? Retrieved from


Potts, M. (1983, June 30).  FCC Vote Takes TV Step Closer To Deregulation. The Washington Post. Retrieved from


Ritter, Z. & Standridge, P. (2019, September 12). Interaction with local media tied to trust in local news. Gallup. Retrieved from

Scott, D., Gobetz, R., & Chanslor, M. (2008). Chain versus independent television station ownership: Toward an investment model of commitment to local news quality. Communication Studies, 59(1), 84–98.

Walker, M. (2021, July 13). U.S. newsroom employment has fallen 26% since 2008. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from


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