A plethora of local news for early risers

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 2, 2011; 9:58 PM

During the November sweeps of 2009, the 4:30 a.m. time slot was a virtual broadcast wasteland of network-produced news shows, "Cops" repeats, "Star Trek: Enterprise" reruns and infomercials. During this past November sweep ratings derby, WUSA, WRC, WJLA and WTTG all had jumped on the national trend and put 4:30 a.m. newscasts in place. Collectively, they attracted about 54,000 more viewers than November 2009.

NBC-owned WRC boasted that it had snagged the most viewers - around 39,000 - while Gannett-owned CBS affiliate WUSA bragged that it logged the most viewers between the ages of 25 and 54 - nearly 17,000. Newscasters pay particular attention to 25-to-54-year-olds, because advertisers buying spots in news programs are paying a premium to get at them.

"At this time of year in Washington, 17 percent of households have a TV on at 4:30. They're not all watching local news, but it's enough to justify being there," Bill Lord, general manager of Washington's ABC affiliate WJLA, told The TV Column.

Realistically, the number of 25-to-54-year-olds to be found at 4:30 a.m. is "minimal," said a TV station executive who preferred to remain anonymous because it was the most direct route to Candid. In November, for instance, 8 percent of 25-to-54-year-olds were using their TVs at 4:30 a.m. in Washington.

On the other hand, adding a 4:30 a.m. newscast costs practically nothing. The stations already had morning news staffs, on-air talent and equipment in place - they were busy at work on the 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. newscasts. The more news a station produces, the lower the overall cost of its news operation becomes.

"It's one of the more efficient things a station can do," said Allan Horlick, WUSA's general manager.

And, when a station airs a syndicated show, say "Cops" reruns, or a network-produced news program at 4:30 a.m., typically it has to turn over a large chunk of the advertising time available in the show to the company that has provided the program to the station.

But when a TV station airs a locally produced newscast at 4:30 a.m., it gets to sell all the ad time in the show. Ka-ching!

And local newscasts attract more viewers. In November '09, for instance, "Cops" reruns attracted 16,200 of you at 4:30 a.m. on WTTG. A year later, an average of 20,000 people watched "Fox Morning News" on the same channel. And, in November '09, WRC copped an average of 20,000 airing NBC's "Early Today." But a year later, WRC's locally produced 4:30 a.m. newscast averaged 39,000. Likewise, WJLA jumped from about 17,000 viewers in November '09 with ABC-provided "America This Morning" to nearly 27,000 with a local newscast. WUSA, meanwhile, climbed from 19,000 viewers to 23,000.

"We win twice - we're serving the audience and making more money," Lord noted.

But the best argument - if you're a local station suit, anyway - for local news at 4:30 a.m. is a little something that we like to call The NCIS Effect.

Last season, CBS's "NCIS: Los Angeles" became an improbable prime-time hit because, it turns out, the very best lead-in you can give a show is - the same show. The lead-in program for "NCIS: Los Angeles"? The original "NCIS."

Meanwhile, with "NCIS: Los Angeles" as its lead-out program, "NCIS" suddenly became the No. 1 scripted show in America - in its seventh season. Back-to-back "NCIS" shows were the Practically Perfect Program Pairing.

Yeah - it's like that with local news, too. The best lead-in a station can give its 5 a.m. local news is - a 4:30 a.m. local news show.

"That really is the reason to do it," said the station executive who preferred anonymity.

"No one is sitting around saying, 'The reason we made budget is 'cause we have a 4:30 a.m. news.' It's not looked on as that type of revenue generator. It's a jump on the competition and you hope to snag shift workers and early commuters . . . but it's 4:30 in the morning. You have limited opportunity - if you are lucky, you get as much of [the ratings] as you can. But nowadays, we deal in tenths of [rating] points. You pick up two-tenths of a point leading into 5 a.m. [news] - that makes a difference."

Local station suits declined to discuss actual dollars and cents, but Lord noted: "If over the course of time [a station's ratings] went up at 5 a.m. by two- or three-tenths, that might be 20 or 30 percent more you can charge. It becomes significant." He quickly added that the price tag on ad space in early news shows is still nowhere near the cost of an ad in the late evening news programs.

But goosing ratings at 5 a.m. is, nonetheless, extremely important in the local TV business; stations have major investments in their 5 o'clock and 6 o'clock morning newscasts.

"If you went back 20 years and looked at 5 and 6 morning news, you'd want to stick an ice pick in your eyes - but now they're fully staffed as well as your 10 or 11 p.m. news," said another station suit who wished to remain anonymous.

"Morning is clearly the growth area for local news, whereas other news is stable or falling. We look to do everything we can - we're building converts," chimed in Lord.

That said, a pre-dawn newscast is different than a later-in-the-day newscast. Traffic and weather reign supreme in the early morning hours; they often lead the show and you can count on them to make repeat appearances every few minutes. Additionally, "you have to have a more upbeat atmosphere than you have in the evening," one station exec said.

"You don't want to be Debbie Downer in the morning. You don't want to be fake, but people would rather wake up to a smiling face than to Debbie Downer. That kind of anchor might work better at 5 in the afternoon."

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