Stations Aim ‘4’ Very Early Risers

The folks at WPIX New York might be excused for being nonplussed by myriad reports of stations debuting 4:30 a.m. newscasts recently. After all, WPIX was breaking new ground in launching a 4 a.m. local news Sept. 20.

WPIX is one of a handful of stations, including KLAS Las Vegas and WTVF Nashville, airing newscasts at that hour. WPIX News Director Bill Carey says Tribune’s CW affiliate set the pace by going to 4:30 two years ago, and the underdog again seeks to lead the pack. “This is about building the news brand,” says Carey, whose station does not air early evening news. “We need to take advantage of every opportunity and think differently.”

The 4:30 a.m. news has been one of the major stories in local television this year. According to new research from Frank N. Magid Associates, seven stations offered a 4:30 a.m. news five years ago. As of this fall, viewers can find such a program in 44 of 56 metered markets—with many DMAs offering multiple 4:30 offerings. Those average around a 15% Households Using Television (HUT) level at 4:30. More eyeopening than the dawning sun, around the same number of people—sometimes more—are watching a half-hour earlier. On Sept. 28, New York showed a 14.9 HUT level at 4 a.m. and a 14.2% at 4:30. Las Vegas posted a 21.9% HUT at 4 a.m. Oct. 1, and a 20.3% at 4:30.

“They’re about the same,” says Frank N. Magid Vice President Nick Lawler. “America just keeps getting up earlier.”

That’s long been the case in Nashville, where rural outskirts and the state capital conspire to create a very large batch of early risers. WTVF, WSMV and WKRN all are local at 4 a.m.; in May sweeps, WTVF won with a 2.1 household rating/10 share, ahead of WSMV’s 1.7/8. (Nashville HUTs are 18%-plus).

“It’s a news-hungry town,” says WSMV News Director Matthew Hilk. “It’s an engaged and involved community.”

A 4 a.m. newcast is no picnic. ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates have to wrangle with the network to free up that time slot and bump the nets’ overnight news to the 3:30 hole. And then there’s the strain on staffers and equipment alike. “It’s definitely not something everybody volunteered for,” says WTVF President/GM Debbie Turner, though she added that the troops are motivated to win another news race.

More and more stations are at least considering that option. Some are eager to own more ad inventory while trimming syndicated programming costs. Others are simply keeping up with the competition. Many more see 4 a.m. as a key driver to the increasingly established 4:30 news. The best lead-in to news, of course, is news.

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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.