Stations Storm 4 A.M. Hour

Stations planning new newscasts brainstorm the program, and painstakingly rehearse and test the show in advance of the big launch.

Or they don’t, as was the case with KTVI St. Louis. Extreme weather saw KTVI go live at 4 a.m. on Jan. 31, and bump reruns of King of the Hill and Cops again the next day between 4 and 5 a.m. with more weather coverage. The storm eventually cleared out, but 4 a.m. news on the Fox affiliate did not.

“We let it happen organically, based on need,” says Audrey Prywitch, KTVI news director. “There was an appetite for it, and it has sustained itself.”

While the 4:30 a.m. newscast was one of the big local TV news stories in 2010, stations now are making 4 a.m. work as well. Tribune’s WPIX New York debuted 4 a.m. news last September, and WXIN Indianapolis launched on Jan. 10. They join the likes of multiple Nashville stations (WTVF, WKRN, WSMV) and KLAS Las Vegas as 4 a.m. players (Station to Station, Oct. 11).

KTVI, WPIX and WXIN have a few other things in common : they are not ABC, CBS or NBC affiliates (which have obligations to air a network newscast at 4); they are in markets that are prone to extreme weather; and their viewers have demonstrated substantial appetites for local reports. “This town loves news and wants news,” Prywitch says of St. Louis. “When there’s weather, they’ll be watching.”

In addition, all three stations have a Tribune connection —Local TV-owned KTVI shares a newsroom with Trib’s KPLR. (A Tribune representative would not comment on plans to expand at 4 a.m. in other markets.) And all are intent on amplifying their presence as a local news brand. “If you work the third shift, if you’re up early, if there’s [bad] weather, if there’s not—we’re gonna be there for you,” says Lee Rosenthal, WXIN news director.

The 4 a.m. rookies are all showing growth. KTVI posted a 1.7 household rating/10 share between 4 and 5 a.m. in February, a 55% gain over the previous February, beating local powerhouses owned by Belo and Gannett. WXIN doubled its ratings from February 2010, when Roseanne aired at 4 a.m., from a 0.7 to a 1.5—meaning approximately 15,000 Hoosiers are watching at 4. “At that hour, that’s a chunk,” says Rosenthal.

WPIX is seeing negligible ratings growth at 4, but the spots sell for more than they did with reruns. News director Bill Carey says having his newsroom open for business 30 minutes before rival Gotham TV operations is key. “It gives us the mojo to be out and running on a story,” he says. “It’s a clear advantage over the competition.”

The expense of producing a 4 a.m. news is nominal. There’s a toll on staffers, but the newsroom chiefs say their crews are more focused on winning races than getting extra shut-eye.

Stations are fighting for every ratings point they can get. Up against powerful competitors owned by Dispatch and LIN, WXIN is looking for time slots it can own. “I think they think we’re crazy,” Rosenthal says of his competitors. “But we think we’re smart.”

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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.