It's 4:57 a.m., and already--already--Channel 4 news anchors Barbara Harrison and Joe Krebs are on the air, warm and perky as coffeepots. Rat-a-tat come the headlines: Carnage and destruction in the wake of the Taiwan earthquake, Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening kills the Intercounty Connector, Cal Ripken comes up lame. Within seconds, Harrison and Krebs are throwing it over to weatherman Clay Anderson.

It's not yet 4:59.

At the stroke of 5, the competition stirs. On Channel 9, anchors Gerald Owens and Peggy Fox come on the air, billboarding the same top stories. And then almost immediately, it's over to Topper Shutt for the weather.

Top stories. Weather. Traffic. Repeat.

In the silent hours before first light, the latest local TV news battle is being waged. Until last month, Channel 9, WUSA, had the graveyard shift all to itself. Then came NBC-owned Channel 4, WRC, which on Labor Day tacked on a half-hour to its 5:30-7 a.m. pre-"Today" show broadcast. Next month, Channel 7 will stretch its local news block from 5 to 7, making it a three-way throw-down. (WTTG, Channel 5, and NewsChannel 8, the local cable news outfit, don't go live and local until 5:30).

Who wants to watch any local newscast at 5 in the morning, let alone choose among three of them? Lots of people. On any weekday morning at 5, the three stations are fighting for about 235,000 households in the Washington area that have the TV set on--about 15 percent of the market, according to Nielsen Media Research. That's far fewer than for the late news at 11 p.m., when about half of all sets are in use. But early morning is where the growth is. While late-news ratings are static, Nielsen estimates that the audience at 5 a.m. is up 25 percent since 1994.

Local stations say that figure has been their wake-up call. They suggest that the area's prolonged morning commutes and the general busyness of everyday life has created a growing pool of people eager for a quick news fix at an early hour.

"People's lifestyles have changed," says Chris Pike, president and general manager of WJLA, Channel 7. "Traffic has become a major concern. You have two-career households with kids. Getting everyone out the door on time has become a real issue."

In that regard, Washington stations are following a national trend. Studies suggest people are taking to heart Ben Franklin's wisdom about being early to rise. The percentage of people who go to bed early and get up early has been growing since the 1960s, according to research by sociologist John P. Robinson, who directs the Americans' Use of Time Project at the University of Maryland.

At the same time, the National Sleep Foundation, based in Washington, says the amount of sleep that the average American gets has declined by about 20 percent over the past century. Don't blame that on the TV, though. The invention and spread of the light bulb has had a profound negative effect on the body's natural sleep-wake cycle, keeping people up longer, says the NSF. Add in more intense work schedules and you've got a sleep-deprived nation. "As the years go by, people are getting up earlier and earlier to get out the door," says Kierstan Boyd, the Sleep Foundation's spokeswoman. "I'm one of them."

There's nothing all that eye-opening about the early newscasts themselves. To judge from those on Channels 4 and 7 last week, the approach is tight and bright, a just-the-facts-ma'am minimalism. There's barely any happy talk, and no news story goes on for more than a minute.

Instead, the news is boiled down to six- or seven-minute chunks that include the headlines, a weather forecast and a traffic update. It's the antithesis of what Channel 4 News Director Robert L. Long calls "the slap-and-tickle" approach--light banter and celebrity talking heads.

"You have to do this as radio with pictures," says Long. The early-morning show "is listened to as much as watched."

For that reason, anchors Harrison and Krebs read aloud the names of the counties that closed their schools for Hurricane Floyd, even though the names were clearly visible on the screen. Explains Long: "People are getting their households up and moving. They're doing other things while they're watching. . . . The days of sitting leisurely at the breakfast table are gone. Now, you microwave a hot dog and you go."

Although the stations have crews available for breaking news, there isn't much news breaking at 5 in the morning, at least not locally. Channel 4, for example, went live to reporter Brian Mooar last week for a story on Metro's plans to extend its hours. But it was clear that Mooar, standing in front of a Metro station, was on live merely for the sake of being on live. He'd reported his piece the day before --a necessity, given that many sources don't like giving interviews at 5 a.m.

Indeed, part of the rationale for being on so early goes beyond merely informing viewers and selling a few more commercials. Long says the earlier start helps his newsroom prepare better to cover the news throughout the rest of the day. Add to that strictly competitive reasons: Stations nationwide have gravitated toward earlier newscasts "as a way of creating an identity as a news leader," says Barbara Cochran, the president of the Radio and Television News Directors Association. "If you're absent from a particular time period, and your competitors are there, it may be difficult to establish [viewer] loyalty at other times."

Recently, she said, KCBS-TV in Los Angeles asked Nielsen to monitor ratings between 2 and 5 a.m., a period normally not rated. KCBS hasn't said what it has in mind, but there's one possibility: Can a 4 a.m. news show be far off?