June 27, 2013

Mike Wall’s morning routine skews early. He rises around 3:30 a.m. or so, the better to pack in a few hours of stretching to treat a sciatica condition. As he twists and contorts, the resident of Cliffside Park, N.J., likes to take in some media, mainly listening to the TV.

At the 4:00 a.m. hour, Fox News re-airs the previous weeknight’s “O’Reilly Factor,” which Wall calls “entertaining enough.” Back in February, Wall noticed, host Bill O’Reilly’s sign-off gave way to a rendition of the national anthem (see video above). Through the late winter and spring, Fox News played the song faithfully every morning — just before 5:00 a.m. on weekdays and before 6:00 a.m. on weekends.

In recent weeks, however, the 72-year-old Wall has noticed that the “Star-Spangled Banner” has become a hit-or-miss proposition in the dawn’s early light. Some days — Fridays and weekends, for example — it happens. Other days, it doesn’t, at least not on its previous schedule. He wants to know what’s up. “It’s just curiosity,” he says.

An independent audit of TV archives by the Erik Wemple Blog corroborates Wall’s contentions. By our reckoning, Fox News debuted the national anthem on Monday, Feb. 18 just before the very-early-morning program “Fox & Friends First,” which starts at 5:00 a.m. On weekends, it customarily aired an hour later, before the start of plain old “Fox & Friends.” That rhythm continued pretty steadily through the late winter and spring, and it brought applause from the Fox News faithful. Not long after the network started the practice, “Fox & Friends First” host Patti Ann Browne said on air that “e-mails have been flooding in from viewers who say they love starting their day with the star-spangled banner.” “Alesia” from Lakeland, Fla., wrote, “What a joy to wake up to the National Anthem at 5 am! Brought back childhood memories of starting & ending the television viewing day with a salute to the USA. Keep it up, would love to see a daily tribute!”

The daily tribute has gone a bit haywire of late. On many weekdays in June, the anthem doesn’t play at its appointed time, if at all. On weekends, it remains steady. It’s unclear whether Fox News is simply slotting the anthem at a different time or whether it has dropped it altogether on certain days: Fox News’s PR shop didn’t respond to requests for comment. Media Matters for America, which watches its share of Fox News programming, confirmed that the anthem didn’t run immediately before “Fox & Friends First” on several days in late May and June. Whatever the case, Fox News is drubbing its cable-news competitors in the category of early-morning musical displays of patriotism. MSNBC and CNN don’t do “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a regular thing.

Shoehorning Francis Scott Key into the daily rotation requires some work. Fox News’s version of the song, which is fronted on the screen by such tried-and-true iconography as the Lincoln Memorial, an eagle, a flowing U.S. flag, representatives of the U.S. armed forces and more, runs for nearly a minute and a half. That’s a fair chunk of broadcast real estate, especially when such products as SunSetter Retractable Awnings, the Pocket Lantern and the Handy Stitch need time to explain their wonders.

Rod Wallberg, a mechanic and carpenter who lives in Michigan’s upper peninsula, cheered the decision to run the anthem back in February. If it doesn’t run at 5 a.m., he says, he won’t be able to catch it. Even so, he praises Fox News for its efforts:

As I was growing up the National Anthem was played at every sign off and sign on on over the air TV. Now that TV never signs off or on, it is not played as often. That FOX News has seen fit to present it at five or six AM is great and the right direction. At the start of many public games it is played or sung but it needs to be presented to us as it was when we were children. . . .

Robert Thompson, an oft-quoted television authority at Syracuse Unviversity’s S.I. Newhouse School of Communications, confirms Wallberg’s take: “The national anthem usually played at the end of a broadcast day — once infomercials became permitted in the early 1980s, many stations stayed on around the clock. We still hear the anthem at televised sporting events, of course, and every network made their logo red/white/blue after 9/11/01 for weeks.”

When such “old traditions” go by the wayside, says Wallberg, “it seems something evil will try and fill the void.”

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.