There’s a new battleground in local TV news, and it’s dark out there. In more than a dozen cities, anchors are on the set well before dawn, chatting live with reporters and meteorologists. And they’re not just talking to each other. Hard as it is to believe, people are actually watching local news at 4:30 a.m.
Scripps-owned WPTV in West Palm Beach launched its early morning newscast in January; General Manager Steve Wasserman calls the ratings “respectable.” In Tampa, Fox sta¬tion WTVT reports that local news at 4:30 is drawing more than twice as many viewers as the program it replaced, the celebrity gossip show TMZ. And the numbers are growing, which is more than you can say for local news in most other time slots.
“Morning news is today’s late news,” Wasserman says. “It used to be that every advertiser wanted to be in the late news, and now they crave mornings.”
One reason may be the kinds of viewers who tune in early. At WCCO in Minneapolis, the audience for the 4:30 newscast is made up almost entirely of people 25 to 54 years old, says News Director Scott Libin. That’s the demographic advertisers most want to reach, so it’s no wonder more stations are rushing to produce a show that’s easy to sell to them.
Because the stations adding early-early newscasts already had local news starting at 5 a.m., it hasn’t cost them much, if anything, to tack on another half hour. WPTV didn’t add a sin¬gle staffer. At WCCO, the only cost has been a little overtime. The revenue from commercials that sell for a few thousand dollars each may not be huge, but it’s all profit to the station.
In some respects, the shift to mornings isn’t a great surprise. The audience for the local news at 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. has been shrinking for more than a decade. Some of the decline can be blamed on a change in measurement systems, but there’s no doubt that American viewing habits have changed. The network programs that follow the late news are in trouble, too. Between them, Leno and Letterman have lost a million viewers in the past two years.
One driving force behind the switch is obvious: driving. Longer commutes have pushed bedtimes earlier and made pre-dawn wake-ups commonplace in cities like New York and Los Angeles, where four local stations now offer news at 4:30. But commuters aren’t the only viewers targeted by stations getting into the early news game.
“There are literally tens of thousands of bakers, bus drivers, fishermen, café
managers, construction workers, hotel employees…all up long before the sun,” says Jonathan Shelley, news director at Hearst-owned WDSU in New Orleans, which launched its “First Edition” newscast in August. “We believe there is a real and consistent audience at 4:30 a.m.”
There’s definitely an audience for television at that hour. About a third of all households in New Orleans have the TV on that early already. Now, they have the option of tuning in to a local newscast at 4:30 instead of network or cable news programs. And they may watch it differently.
“People used to watch for 10 or 15 minutes [in the morning] and leave for work or school,” WPTV’s Wasserman says. Now, he says, they’re staying tuned for 30 to 45 minutes at a clip, to the delight of early morning advertisers.
What viewers like about local morning news isn’t just the timing, it’s the content. “There’s lots of stuff going on,” Wasserman says. “On the late news, a lot has already happened.”
No question, late evening newscasts are often crammed with crime and other so-called breaking news that doesn’t amount to much in the light of day. The new predawn newscasts are more utilitarian, packed with weather and traffic reports that help early risers plan their day. And they bring viewers up to date on late sports scores and international developments that took place overnight.
“It’s the only time of day when you can assume the viewers have not had access to news for six to eight hours,” Libin says. That means stories from Iraq or Afghanistan, which local stations typically wouldn’t touch later in the day, are fair game first thing in the morning. And viewers all over the country want to know the numbers from the global financial markets.
At KUSA in Denver, the 4:30 a.m. newscast that launched in June focuses on financial and business news. “There are more and more people [here] working in multiple time zones domestically and internationally that must use various work hours to conduct business,” says Patti Dennis, the station’s vice president and news director.
Not long ago, it seemed inconceivable that local news at 4:30 a.m. could succeed. Now the question is whether to start even earlier. One New York station has a 4 a.m. newscast in the works for fall. “I have no plans to go at 4 a.m.,” Wasserman says. “But if you’d asked me 18 months ago if I planned a 4:30 [newscast], I’d have said no.”
Anchors, set your alarm clocks earlier. The audience already has.
This column was originally published in American Journalism Review, September/October 2010