Local News Wakes Up

Good Morning Memphis anchor Ron Meroney isn't prone to Freudian slips, but on a recent morning, he tripped up. “Melissa is live in the bedroom,” he said, intending to say “newsroom.” His WHBQ cohorts howled with laughter.

At 5:30 a.m., such a gaffe might be forgiven. The show, one of a growing number of really early- morning news shows, goes live at 5 a.m. in one of the most competitive morning markets in the country. Last fall, WHBQ moved Good Morning Memphis' 7 a.m. start time up two hours to match CBS affiliate WREG at 5 a.m. However, true bragging rights go to NBC affiliate WMC, which kicks off its news, traffic and weather at 4:30 a.m., when some residents of this blues town are just going to bed. “Morning news is the new prime time,” says WMC News Director Peggy Phillips, clutching the first of three mugs of coffee for the day.

Across the country, stations are waking up to the early shift. Changing lifestyles—longer work hours and earlier bedtimes—are sapping the audience for evening news. In contrast, the morning audience is growing. In 2004, 25% of American homes were watching TV at 6:30 a.m., compared with 15% in 1991, according to Nielsen Media Research. At 6 a.m., the tune-in levels jumped to 20% from 11%.

Drawn by cheaper spots and strong ratings, national advertisers are jumping aboard the early-morning bandwagon, and stations are exploiting new ways to make money in the morning: One example is by selling sponsorships for the weather and traffic. Hyundai, trying to reach commuters, recently bought spots in local morning news in more than a dozen East Coast markets—a first for the automaker. “You have working viewers with good household incomes,” says Mary Barnas, director of local broadcast for Carat North America, which engineered the agreement.

Today, at least two stations in each of the top 120 Nielsen markets have two-hour newscasts starting at 5 a.m., and some are as long as four hours. San Diego and Sacramento, Calif., among others, boast five morning shows. Stations in the South and Midwest attract the biggest morning crowds.

Evening news is a station's cash cow, commanding higher ad rates and generating more revenue, and morning news still brings in a fraction of nighttime figures. But while the gains in early morning may never fully offset evening losses, it remains the only growth spot for local news. Beyond revenue, a strong morning program sets up the day. Viewers stay tuned for Today or Good Morning America and then move on to The Ellen DeGeneres Show or Live With Regis and Kelly. Promotional spots for prime time and late news tempt viewers to return later.

Morning news shows, whose revenue has been negligible in the past, now comprise as much as 20% of news revenues, stations say, which in turn make up about 40% of a station's revenue. For a middle-market station with $40 million in annual revenue, early newscasts might account for $3 million.

“On some stations, the ratings at 6 a.m. are as good as early-evening news,” says local media buyer Bill Perkins, president of Indianapolis-based Perkins Nichols Media. In Indianapolis, he points out, a $1,000 spot in early-evening news and a $500 spot in morning news deliver nearly the same ratings. In New Orleans, CBS affiliate WWL can draw a 13 rating in the early morning, one of the highest marks in the country. In Baltimore, Philadelphia, Indianapolis and St. Louis, multiple stations regularly hit a 6 or 7 rating.

Local morning news shows even trump their national counterparts. On average, about 16 million viewers watch local morning newscasts nationwide, while Today, Good Morning America and The Early Show combined reach about 12 million viewers, according to news consulting firm Frank N. Magid & Associates.

Few places highlight the morning surge like Memphis, the 44th-largest TV market. It is a shift town, with workers at FedEx, the city's largest employer, and numerous medical centers punching in around-the-clock. The city's suburbs are pushing out into eastern Arkansas and central Tennessee, lengthening commutes. Frequent ice storms and tornadoes make viewers anxious for weather reports before they head out in the morning.

In Memphis, as it is elsewhere in the U.S., morning viewers use TV more like radio. Half of early viewers aren't actually watching; they are listening, according to Magid research. Most viewers tune into television in the morning for less than 30 minutes. Those habits have changed the way morning shows are produced. “The shows are written for the ear, not as much for the eye,” says Steve Schwaid, senior VP of news and programming for NBC-owned stations.

To keep pace with viewers racing from the coffee pot to the shower, news is rapid-fire. At WMC, the 45 minutes from 6:15 to 7 a.m. mark a critical window: That is when Memphians are racing out the door, according to station research. They want top-line information fast, so WMC skips taped reports and long packages and airs traffic and weather highlights more frequently.

Across town, WHBQ's four-hour marathon starts with hard news and gets softer as the morning progresses. “We never want to be just entertainment,” says VP/GM John Koski. “We want to be news with personality.” In the second half of the newscast, local chefs might appear to cook in the brand-new kitchen set, and area spas sometimes treat viewers to “Foxy Makeovers.”

Programming a news show that balances personality and hard news before most people have had their first cup of coffee can be tricky. All morning shows play up overnight news, weather and traffic. In Des Moines, Iowa, traffic isn't the snarl it is in Dallas. Weather is predictable in San Diego and Phoenix, but not so in Boston and Minneapolis.

NBC O&O KXAS Dallas gives traffic reporter Tammy Dombeck, nicknamed the “Gridlock Buster,” heavy airtime. “People tell us they need their Tammy in the morning,” says News Director Susan Tully. KXAS runs promotional ads in which local paramedics and American Airlines workers proclaim that they always tune in for Dombeck's reports. The station has let viewers vote to pick her wardrobe and even to find her backup reporter.

At Meredith Broadcasting, VP of Morning News Rosemarie Schwarz frets at the prospect of finding the right morning hosts. “One miscast person can bring a show down,” she says.

Two-thirds of morning stories are under 45 seconds, according to a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Producers work on tight, repetitive news wheels. The anchors tease upcoming stories relentlessly. Whether it is “Weather on the 5s!” or “Traffic on the 2s!”, each station hammers its own version all morning. “Viewers are on the clock,” says KXAS' Tully.

Expanded morning newscasts represent valuable airtime to TV stations, which control all the ad time in a news hour, unlike in prime time or syndicated programming. On WMC's morning show, McDonald's sponsors the news ticker, and local insurance agent Bill Blake purchased naming rights to the traffic cameras.

An added bonus: If a station hooks viewers early in the day, it can promote its daytime syndication, evening news and prime time.

“Morning is the only growing time period for local news,” says station consultant Bruce Northcott, a partner at Crawford Johnson & Northcott and former Magid president. “You better be competitive, or you're going to be in deep trouble. It is that simple.”

The morning-show movement is due directly to changing lifestyles in the U.S. Americans are getting up earlier to care for families, go to work or tackle longer commutes. Nearly one-third of Americans wake before 6 a.m., according to the National Sleep Foundation, and more adults are getting less sleep.

From May 1997 to May 2004, the average audience share for early-evening news dropped 18%, according to a study by Project for Excellence and BIA Financial Network, while late news slipped 16%. “People are going to bed earlier and getting up earlier,” says Pat Casey, who recently left his post as news director at WXIX Cincinnati, which also starts news at 4:30 a.m. “That's your enemy in late news, but your friend in the morning.”

Recognizing the shift, big broadcasters such as Hearst-Argyle, Viacom and Tribune have made launching and improving their morning shows a priority. In Boston last month, Viacom relaunched its second early-morning TV show in the market: UPN's The Morning Show is now a fast-paced lifestyle show targeting female viewers. Co-owned CBS station WBZ has a more traditional two-hour early newscast.

In Baltimore, competition is so heated between Hearst-Argyle's NBC affiliate WBAL and CBS-owned WJZ that the stations' morning ratings rival evening news Nielsens for stations in other markets. In February, in the 6 a.m. hour, WJZ posted an 8.0 rating, and WBAL averaged a 7.8. Sinclair's Fox affiliate WBFF was a distant third with a 1.9. Scripps Howard's ABC station WMAR clocked in at 1.5.

The focus on mornings has even stretched into weekends. Dispatch Broadcasting's NBC affiliate WTHR Indianapolis offers three hours on Saturdays and Sundays, complementing the network's Weekend Today. “Ten years ago, we never thought we would do this,” says VP/GM Rich Pegram. Dozens of ABC stations have added weekend shows to flank the new Good Morning America weekend edition, and Viacom is pushing all its CBS outlets to add weekend news, too.

Meredith Broadcasting's Schwarz, a morning pioneer who helped Cox-owned Fox affiliate KTVU San Francisco's plucky morning show go up against the Big Three stations in the market in 1992, believes the competition will only get hotter. KTVU clawed its way to the top spot by providing a live local broadcast while its rival network competitors ran taped network news out of New York.

Meredith subsequently hired Schwarz to engineer similar results for its 13 stations.

The new reality is simple, Schwarz says: “The audiences for nighttime newscasts are eroding, and morning is growing. Stations can make money in the morning.”