The Early News Gets a Little Bit Earlier

LOCAL TV veterans remember when early news started at 6 a.m., then made the surprising shift to 5. But as stations increase their local presence, several, including WESH Orlando, WLWT Cincinnati and several NBC O&Os, have launched 4:30 a.m. newscasts this spring.

While some may wonder who besides Red Bull-fueled nightcrawlers and bug-eyed insomniacs are up at 4:30, stations are finding revenue in that slot—and meeting mandates to be 24/7 local news outlets. “What stations do better than anyone is provide local news and weather,” says WESH-WKCF President/ General Manager Jim Carter, who launched a 4:30 March 30. “People want it when they want it, and the more we can be there when they want us, the better.”

Station executives offer many reasons why more people are watching news in the wee hours, including longer commutes, the nonstop news cycle driven by cable and the Web, and the decreased presence of newspapers. There’s also the increasingly global economy to service. “People here have jobs that are attached to time zones all over the planet,” says KUSA Denver VP of News Patti Dennis, who launches a 4:30 in June.

Others with 4:30 newscasts include WPIX New York, the StationtoStation majority of the Fox-owned stations, and six of NBC’s 10 O&Os.

Initial expectations are modest, though general managers are encouraged by early returns. WPTV West Palm Beach averages a 2.0 household rating/9 share at 4:30, good for about 15,000 households. WTVT Tampa’s 4:30 program showed a year-over-year 133% ratings improvement over its 4:30 predecessor, TMZ. WNBC averages 41,000 viewers since launching its 4:30 news March 1. VP of News Susan Sullivan says it offers a quick headlines recap for busy viewers. “It helps you not look like a fool later on at the water cooler,” she says.

Ad rates aren’t princely pre-dawn. One market leader says 4:30 rates are 10%-15% of what the station gets for late news. A leading station in New York or Los Angeles might get $3,000 for a 30-second spot; everyone else, considerably less.

But advertiser interest is growing. “The 5 a.m. advertisers are taking a hard look at 4:30,” says WTVT VP/General Manager Bill Schneider. “The ratings aren’t something you can overlook.”

Around 60% of stations are expected to keep staffing levels flat in 2010, and even the breezy nature of a 4:30 newscast involves asking more of maxed-out staffers. “It’s fair to say people weren’t jumping up and down [when the station launched a 4:30 in January],” says WPTV VP/General Manager Steve Wasserman. “But what’s great about this crew is that they’re so dedicated to the cause.”

If a 4:30 a.m. local news was once unthinkable, can a 4 a.m. news be that far off? Perhaps not. “It depends on the feedback we get from viewers,” says Schneider. “If it’s something they see as important, we’ll certainly consider it.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.