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It’s Early, But FoxLeads Drive for Five

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With the recent launch of Fox News Channel’s Fox & Friends First and, before that, the premiere of CNN’s Early Start in January, the 5 a.m. hour in cable news is getting increasingly competitive.

And at this stage in the fight, the leader is a familiar one. Fox News, whose Fox & Friends leads the morning ratings race on cable news, no doubt saw an opportunity to expand its ratings dominance to another hour on the schedule. And in the early going, the ratings stack up just as they do in primetime: In its first two weeks on the air (March 5-16), Fox & Friends First averaged 384,000 total viewers to MSNBC’s 206,000 and CNN’s 137,000. (Fox News declined to make anyone available for comment).

Formerly an hour of primetime replays, a boost in original news programming at the pre-dawn time period has mirrored a trend in local news, where the number of stations offering 4:30 a.m. newscasts doubled in 2011 for the second year in a row, according to the 2012 State of the News Media report by Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. And ratings have followed—Pew reported viewership in that time slot rose more than 330% on average across all sweeps periods. In other words, if you produce it, they will come.

“5 a.m. is the new 6 a.m.,” says MSNBC’s president, Phil Griffin, whose network launched the 5:30 a.m. program Way Too Early With Willie Geist in mid-2009. “I think the whole country just gets up earlier, maybe partially because Baby Boomers are such a big group, and they are a little older and they don’t sleep in.”

The appeal of the pre-dawn hour is the audience, say news executives—the opportunity to set the agenda for CEO-types on treadmills, not to mention allow advertisers to reach those lucrative eyeballs. At Way Too Early, the most established of the early morning cable news shows, 23% of the audience has an average annual household income of $100,000 or more.

“It’s a time period that’s very desirable by advertisers, and it’s very predictable; people do the same thing every day, so it’s a good place to attract and keep a loyal audience,” says Bart Feder, senior VP of programming for CNN/U.S.

CNN began experimenting in the 5 a.m. hour last June when it launched Wake Up Call, anchored by Ali Velshi and leading into its now-defunct American Morning, before deciding to officially expand its morning block to four hours. It re-launched its lineup in January, with Feder pointing to the audience gains in early morning local news.

“We’d recognized for a while there’s a growing available audience earlier in the day,” he says.

MSNBC created Way Too Early to help lead viewers into Morning Joe, and though the half-hour program is currently paired with First Look at 5 a.m., Griffin says he would “definitely” think about expanding Too Early to one hour to give MSNBC a single program at that hour like the other networks.

“The issue that I’ve got is [Geist] does three hours of Morning Joe, and I don’t want to over-tax him,” Griffin says. “[The current schedule] is working now, but maybe one day it will become an hour.”

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