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Research finds broadcast editorials continue to wane.

GROWING UP IN DETROIT, I became accustomed to television editorials. I didn't always understand what they were saying, and I remember my mother once turned off the TV during a commentary program because it was "controversial." No sex or violence . . . just controversy.

When I left the Motor City to attend college in Tennessee, I was surprised at the dearth of television editorials.

Eventually I worked at a few radio and television stations as a reporter and sometimes as a disc jockey. Years later I decided to teach and entered a graduate program. For my dissertation I returned to an old topic. I knew that fewer stations were editorializing, and I linked that issue with the Fairness Doctrine. I reasoned that editorials were an outgrowth of a station's policy to engage in controversial programming.

Although television editorializing increased in the 1960s, it became clear through the 1980s that the trend was receding. Fewer editorials and more editorial writers being handed pink slips marked a disturbing trend to some. Over the past 40 years a number of television stations have discontinued the practice of editorializing.

At one time estimates indicated that more than half of all television stations were editorializing. My research appears to confirm that fewer television stations are editorializing -- and for some surprising reasons.

History of television editorializing

Coming up with an exact number of stations that have editorialized over the past 40 years is difficult. Various studies conducted throughout the 1960s and 1970s placed the number of television stations editorializing in the neighborhood of 50% to 75%.

Most of the research suggested an increase in editorializing by television stations from the early 1960s through about 1975. It also appears that broadcast editorializing dramatically increased after Newton Minow became commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission in 1961. Minow, appointed by President Kennedy to head the FCC, became an activist who is best known for his "vast wasteland" speech to broadcasters in 1961.

Previous studies have cited several factors that best distinguish television stations that editorialize.

1.) Television stations with larger staffs tend to editorialize more.

2.) VHF stations tend to editorialize more than UHF stations. This is probably because VHF stations tend to have larger audiences, are usually network affiliated, and have greater financial resources available.

3.) Television stations in Top 50 markets appear to editorialize more, possibly because those stations have increased resources and are better staffed.

4.) The larger its news staff, the more likely a station is to editorialize.

5.) The ownership position of the station and the position of station management can determine editorial policy.

6.) Network affiliation appears to be important. Although in previous studies not much difference appeared between network affiliates, CBS affiliates did tend to editorialize more and NBC affiliates were the least likely to editorialize among the traditional three networks.

Not surprisingly, independent stations tended not to editorialize. This was probably because they had less revenue and a modest news effort.

7.) The geographical region of the country appears to be an important indicator of a station's editorializing commitment. A greater percentage of stations in the East tend to editorialize.

1992 survey

For my dissertation I surveyed United States commercial television stations with network affiliation. In early 1992, surveys were sent to all 694 commercial stations in the U.S. affiliated with one of the four major networks: ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC. Television station managers were asked a variety of questions about the Fairness Doctrine and the extent of editorializing at their station.

Survey questions focused on several areas. Among other questions, I wanted to know:

* Does the station editorialize? If so, why, and what is the nature of those editorials?

* If the station does not editorialize, what are the reasons for that policy?

Representative results

Of the 694 stations surveyed, 306 stations responded, representing a return rate of 44%. A comparison of the stations surveyed and the "population" of commercial TV stations indicated that the sample was representative. That's an important point when trying to generalize the results.

One of the biggest disappointments was the non-response to my survey. Several large markets such as New York and Chicago were not represented in this survey. CBS-owned and -operated stations refused to cooperate. A few stations sent back polite notes explaining that they "don't do surveys."

Because of limited funds I was not able to do follow-up research to increase the response rate.

Not surprisingly, almost all television stations employ a sales director (97%), followed by a news director (85%), sports director (81%), and public affairs director (74.5%). However, very few stations employ an editorial director (9.8%) or editorial board (12.1%). Those stations with an editorial director tend to be: (1) owned by newspapers or magazines, (2) located in the eastern or western regions of the country, and (3) operating a news department.

Editorializing stations

A total of 101 of the 306 respondents (33%) said they broadcast editorials, while 203 said they do not. I wanted to find out why stations editorialize.

When allowed to choose multiple categories, almost all those who editorialize (96%) said they do it to "serve the community." A little less than half (44.6%) said it is "for station prestige"; a little more than one-third (37.6%) said "to attract viewers." (Percentages will not total 100%.)
Survey breakdown

Commercial stations affiliated with major network 694
Responded to survey 306
Do editorials 101


But when asked to choose the primary reason for editorializing, stations were split among "others in the market editorialize" (19.8%), "for station prestige" (18.8%), "to satisfy FCC requirements" (15.8%), and "it makes good business sense" (14.9%).

The frequency of editorializing varied from earlier research. Almost one-fitch (19.8%) said they editorialize weekly; 18.8% editorialize daily, and 15.8% said they rarely editorialize.

Milan Meeske's 1978 study found most stations (31%) editorialized dally. This suggests that although stations continue to editorialize, they do so less often.

Almost half of my survey (44.6%) said their editorials run from one to one-and-a-half minutes. The response was evenly split (22.8%) between those whose editorials ran thirty seconds to one minute, and one-thirty to two minutes.

A little more than one-third (37.6%) run editorials adjacent to newscasts while 33.7% broadcast their editorials during newscasts. Nineteen stations (18.8%) scatter their editorials throughout the day.

Examining and analyzing editorial content and determining the degree that stations' editorials deal with controversial issues is difficult with a mail survey of this type. Most stations (59.4%) said their editorials are "informative with opinion," while about one-third (32.7%) said theirs are usually a "call for action." Most editorials (62.3%) deal with local issues.

When asked how controversial their editorials tend to be, responses were split (42.6%) between "usually" or "somewhat" controversial. Only 11 stations (10.9%) said their editorials are "always" controversial.

The station manager has an active role in the preparation and delivery of television editorials. Forty-one stations (40.6%) said the station manager decides the issues. Thirty-two stations (31.7%) leave topic control to an editorial board. Meeske found that station managers and news directors were both cited (27% each) as responsible for determining editorial topics.

The writing of editorials is shared equally (25.7%) by station managers and editorial directors. At 18 stations (17.8%) the news director writes or prepares the editorials. Most stations leave the approval or review of the editorials to the station manager (62.4%). About two-thirds of the stations surveyed (66.3%) said the station manager presents the editorials. Seventeen stations (16.8%) have the editorial director present the editorials.

Most stations (82.3%) use the traditional studio set to present their editorials. However, when given an opportunity to indicate any additional production methods, more than half (58.4%) said they utilize videotape, followed by graphics (51.5%), character generators for text on the screen (45.5%), and chroma-key for special effects (41.6%). (Percentages will not equal 100%.)

An important part of editorializing is allowing audience feedback. About one-fourth of the stations (26.7%) reported they receive letters or phone calls from audience members after "some" editorials. Another quarter of the stations (23.8%) said they receive feedback after "many" of their editorials. Nineteen stations (18.8%) reported feedback after "almost every" editorial and 12 stations (11.9%) after "every" editorial. Only 17 stations (16.8%) receive occasional feedback. Seventy-three stations (72.3%) said they furnish copies of their editorials to the public, and 38 of them submitted copies of their editorials with this survey.

Non-editorializing stations

Sixty-seven percent of the 306 stations responding said they do not editorialize. When indicating multiple reasons for their station's not editorializing, more than half (51.7%) said "lack of budget for research and writing." Fifty-four stations (26.3%) said editorializing is "incompatible" with their news operation.

Additional reasons for not editorializing included "others in the market do not editorialize" (10.7%), "desire not to offend listeners" (8.8%), "desire to avoid controversial programming" (7.8%), and "too many complaints from special interest groups" (7.8%). (Percentages will not equal 100%).

When asked to choose one reason for not editorializing, 79 stations (38.5%) said "lack of budget," and 18.5% said "incompatible with our news operation." Only 17 stations (13%) said they are fundamentally opposed to editorializing.

Those who are opposed to editorializing said so in blunt terms. A general manager in the West said, "We are not in the opinion business." A station in the South said, "I don't believe viewers care about what we think." Several respondents said they don't think the public cares what a station's editorial position is. Several said they rely on local news to address community concerns and feel they should continue a neutral posture on issues.

Most of those who do not editorialize indicated they will continue that policy for some time. Eighty-two percent said they don't anticipate editorializing within the next 12 months. But when asked, "What must change before your station would begin editorializing?" the responses were evenly split between "budget, funding, better economy" (13.2%), "fundamentally opposed to editorializing" (13.2%), and "no time, other priorities" (12.7%). Fifty stations (24.4%) did not answer the question.
Frequency of audience feedback

Occasionally 16.8%
After every editorial 11.9%
After almost every editorial 18.8%
After many editorials 23.8%
After some editorials 26.7%


Ownership

Meeske's 1978 report thought that a station's ownership and position of station management would influence the amount of editorializing. Group owners were thought to have additional revenue to draw from to support editorializing. Some group owners (for example Westinghouse) seem more inclined to engage in controversial programming. However, a statistically significant difference does not exist between group-owned stations and those not owned by a group.

Affiliation with a traditional network (ABC, CBS, or NBC) relates significantly to a station's editorial policy. The 1989 study by Essential Information found that traditional network affiliates schedule more public affairs programs. My research found that ABC affiliates editorialize most (41.9%), followed by CBS affiliates (41.5%) and NBC affiliates (26.7%). Although 15.7% of the stations surveyed were affiliated with the Fox network, only seven of these stations (14.6%) editorialize.

Indications show that the traditional network/station relationship is changing dramatically. Because of the additional programming available and with satellite delivery, networks have less control over stations than they once had. The recent affiliation changes after the NFL acquisition by Fox promises to complicate the traditional network structure even more.

Previous research found that a greater percentage of stations in the East editorialize. However, my dissertation does not show a significant difference based on region.

Market size appears to be a factor in editorial policy. Meeske found in 1978 that stations in larger markets editorialized more than stations in smaller markets. He reasoned this was because of the stations' having larger staffs. The top 50 markets tended to editorialize more than smaller markets.

This research found a significant difference based on market size.

This study shows a significant difference between VHF and UHF stations. It shows that television stations in the VHF band (channels 2 through 13) editorialize more than those in the UHF band, channels 14 and above. Historically, VHF stations have managed better financially than UHF because they tend to be network-affiliated and have much more programming and revenue available. With the erosion of network viewership and the rise of the Fox network (which grew out of previous independents) this may not be as true today.

A technical difference between VHF and UHF is the difficulty in UHF reception. Also, until the mid-1960s most television sets were not equipped with UHF receivers.

One might expect that stations with a financial and moral commitment to covering news would also be committed to dealing with controversial issues in their community. Meeske's 1978 study established that non-network stations editorialize the least because of a "modest" news effort.

Even with the deregulation of broadcasting during the 1980s, news continues to be a primary source of revenue for many local television stations. My survey found that stations programming local news editorialize more than stations without local news coverage. This relationship was statistically significant owing to the amount of news broadcast.

This study tested an additional level of news commitment by comparing the amount of news programmed. Stations that broadcast 11 to 30 hours of news weekly editorialize most (59.4%), followed by one to 10 hours of news per week (26.7%). This difference was also significant.

Summary

Although the number is down from previous research, many television stations continue to editorialize. This research found 33% editorializing, and even less (30.4%) airing individual commentaries.

The primary reasons are diverse, but less than altruistic. Most stations were split among "others in the market editorialize" (19.8%), "for station prestige" (18.8%), "to satisfy FCC requirements" (15.8%), and "it makes good business sense" (14.9%). Only two stations (2%) said they editorialize to "serve the community."

The stations that do produce editorials tend to be owned by a newspaper or magazine, be a traditional network affiliate (ABC, CBS, or NBC), be located in a large market, operate in the VHF band, and have an aggressive news effort.

This study leaves little doubt that television editorializing is declining. A total of 101 of the 306 respondents (33%) said they broadcast editorials, while 203 do not. This percentage is less than half that reported by Meeske (61%) in 1978 and well below previous surveys reported by the NAB (56%) in 1967, Television-Radio Age (65%) in 1970, and Broadcasting Yearbook (58%) in 1976. Wolf reported editorializing by 78% of television stations in Top 50 market stations surveyed in 1971.

My research indicates that stations editorialize because of pressures outside the station. Serving the community, acquiring or maintaining station prestige, and satisfying FCC requirements indicate external pressures from other stations in that market, the government, and the public. A little less than half (41.1%) of the 306 stations participating in the survey said other stations in their market editorialize.

The primary reason stations gave for their editorial policy indicates pressure from other stations led them to editorialize. Even with the recent deregulation of programming content, including the Fairness Doctrine, some stations still feel pressure from the FCC to editorialize.

Most editorials (62.3%) deal with local issues. Meeske discovered that 31% of his sample (108 stations) dealt with a balance of state and local topics and 29% were purely local issues. The NAB found that 69% of television editorials were local in 1966, while Fang and Whelan determined that 59% dealt with local issues. This is in keeping with the focus of the Fairness Doctrine on local, controversial issues.

Although this research did not systematically and directly examine typical editorial content, indications show that the nature of many editorials continues to deal with controversial programming. Many stations report that their content is "usually" or "somewhat" controversial.

Although self-reported data are suspect because they often cannot be corroborated, almost three-quarters (73.3%) of the stations reported that their editorial topics focus on local or state issues. If a station desires to avoid controversy, dealing with national or international matters farther from home and less likely to arouse controversy would be easier.

Stations do not editorialize for several reasons, and most of them appear to be related to economics. Several stations cited the weak economy and said editorializing will be impossible until they can hire the necessary personnel.
Percentage of stations editorializing

1967 56%
1970 65%
1976 58%
1978 61%
1994 33%


Another reason stations give for not editorializing is a philosophical opposition to their station's taking a position. Many who indicated an aversion to editorializing point to their news department as a means of satisfying their public service obligation and informing the public.

Parting shots

I haven't left much room in this article for my thoughts on television editorializing, but they've been challenged after conducting this survey.

The broadcast industry hasn't sold the public, government, media, and other broadcasters on the need for editorializing. Broadcasters haven't consistently insisted on an equal footing with other media.

A handful of stations in this survey said broadcasters should not editorialize. If a station presents an editorial and allows citizen feedback, it has gone a long way to serving the public-interest standard to which many give lip service.

Others were concerned with their "bottom line" and felt that opinions would drive away potential advertisers or attract the neighborhood nuts demanding "equal time." If done well and fairly, editorials are good business.

The Masthead reaches a number of newspaper editors, and I want to highlight the comments on page 14 made by print-owned television stations that do not editorialize. Even though this number is small, if print-owned stations aren't sold on the necessity of editorializing, how can the rest of the broadcast industry follow?

What about newspaper-owned stations?

A statistically significant difference exists between the stations owned by newspapers or magazines, and non-print owners. In other words, significantly more stations owned by newspapers editorialize than stations not owned by newspapers.

Most newspapers editorialize and have an opinion page with letters from readers featuring a number of controversial issues. I expected this policy might carry over into their television operations. However, here are some comments made by non-editorializing television stations owned by newspapers:

"History -- never did, still don't."

"Just plain lack of time."

"Just don't want to."

"Don't feel it is our role."

"Not necessary."

"We are not even considering such."

"If a station airs commentaries or editorials, it tends to BECOME the news. We believe a station's primary responsibility is to REPORT the news -- not create it. . . . Nothing will change our policy."

"No interest."

"Public response was threatening. The people in this market must become more educated to realize that they can't cause bodily harm to someone just because of a difference of opinion."

"Don't want to."

Dr. David Spiceland is affiliated with the communications department of Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.
COPYRIGHT 1994 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Spiceland, David
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Dec 22, 1994
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