Stations Rising -- And Shining

It’s all sunny side up for local television’s sizzling morning newscasts

WSVN Miami grew its morning news block over time, adding a 5:30 a.m. weekday newscast in 1998, then moving the start time to 5 a.m. in September 2001, to make for a hefty four-hour period. As a Fox affiliate, the station had some flexibility on the schedule; owned by Sunbeam Television and the business maverick Ed Ansin, WSVN had an independent streak in its DNA to boot.

So, when the contract renewal for the syndicated Live With Regis and Kelly came up last fall, WSVN’s brain trust weighed the station’s options for 9 a.m. and decided to go live and local in that hour. Robert Leider, WSVN executive VP and general manager, says demand from advertisers in the ! ve-hour a.m. behemoth remains red hot since the addition of Today in Florida in late August. “Ratings are a little better, and we have all the inventory and an increased news presence,” Leider says. “Viewing levels for news [around the country] have dropped over the years, but morning news has not. In many cases, there’s been some growth.”

While local broadcast executives have identifed the early a.m. as an emerging battleground for years, considerable evidence has bubbled up of late that suggests the daypart has never been more competitive, with stations pouring more resources into those newscasts, and starting them earlier and earlier. The perhaps $3 billion forecasted in political spending on stations this year is a factor in the local news expansion, as is the widespread usage of smartphones and tablets, as stations fight each other to reach viewers first thing in the morning, and hopefully keep them connected to station content on users’ various digital devices throughout the day.

As a result, there may not be a hotter part of the day. “I think an awful lot of fully engaged local broadcasters see considerable upside in mornings,” says Bruce Northcott, principal at station consultancy CJ&N. “Some of the low-hanging fruit has been taken, but they still see upside from an audience standpoint and, consequently, a revenue standpoint.”

A.M. News Perks Up

If a station is adding news hours, there’s a good bet it’s in the a.m. Recent additions include WTVJ Miami adding two hours of weekend morning news, WVTM Birmingham tacking on four hours during weekends, WOLO Columbia (S.C.) adding a 6-7 a.m. show, WDBD Jackson and WFXB Myrtle Beach debuting at 7 a.m., KOCO Oklahoma City kicking off an 8 a.m. weekend news and WKRN Nashville returning weekend morning news two years after scrapping it. As with WKRN, several launches are returns for newscasts that were shelved during the downsizing years.

The launch of 4:30 a.m. news was the local TV story in recent years, and it continues to be a signi! cant trend, including WCAU Philadelphia debuting last Sept. 12 and WJAR Providence’s Nov. 28 launch. But the once unheard of 4 a.m. news is an even hotter trend, with fledgling 4-6 a.m. news at Univision stations in Dallas and Houston, along with 4 a.m. rookies at Tribune’s WGN Chicago, KCPQ Seattle and WXIN Indianapolis.

Tribune has been as active as any group in expanding its morning reach, thanks in part to its collection of Fox and CW affiliates that are not committed to a network morning broadcast. Tribune launched its “Eye Opener” franchise, a mix of national content out of KDAF Dallas and stations’ local inserts, at KDAF, WPHL Philadelphia, KIAH Houston, WSFL Miami and KCRW Portland, along with traditional morning newscast debuts and expansions at KTLA Los Angeles and WTIC Hartford.

The group launched around 100 hours of news in the fall, with 75-80% of it coming in the a.m. hours. “There’s no question our focus has been finding new audience and new revenue in mornings,” says Steve Charlier, Tribune senior VP of news and operations.

More than one-third of all television stations added news in 2010, according to a Hofstra University/RTDNA station survey. Four of the top " ve slots for new newscasts—4:30 and 9 a.m., Saturday morning, Sunday morning—show an “a.m.” suffix. “Where are the additions? Mornings, clearly,” concludes Bob Papper, author of the study. “We expect even bigger growth in mornings in [the 2011 survey].”

While the a.m. growth is mostly on non-ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates— fully 60% of Fox affiliates added news in 2010, says Papper—a large number of stations affiliated with the traditional Big Three networks have continued their morning block on a sister CW or independent, or on a subchannel, as is the case with WRDQ Orlando and WTVF Nashville, to name a couple. Others, including NBC’s owned stations in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Dallas, have unveiled 11 a.m. news, while on the Spanish-language side, seven TeleFutura outlets continue their local morning show when Univision’s network show rolls.

The stations are clamoring to reach a viewership with unparalleled upside. Late news viewership dropped 11.4% from 2007 to 2011, according to Nielsen Media Research, while early evening news ratings slid almost 10%. Morning news, on the other hand, decreased just over 1%.

Moreover, houses using television (HUT) levels at 4 a.m. went from 14.7% (in Live +7) in 2006 to 15.8% in 2011, according to Nielsen. At 4:30, HUT went from 14.4% to 15.5% during that same period, while 5 a.m. went from 14.9% to 15.9%, along with a comparable increase at 5:30 a.m. (The HUT level at 6-7 a.m. decreased over the past five years, reports Nielsen, perhaps indicative of viewers’ longer commutes.)

Besides having more viewers to broadcast to, local TV leaders offer an array of reasons for expanding in the mornings. Some cite a heightened affinity among viewers for weather info, with the increased occurrence of extreme events such as hurricanes and tornadoes, along with more interest in traffic, with many commutes getting longer.

Others say it’s a chance for a station that may not be a front-runner in the market to win a time period—and drive tune-in for the rest of the day. Valari Staab, president of NBC Owned Television Stations, cites the importance of mornings, heading into NBC’s leading Today program, as essential to her strategy for turning around the once mighty NBC-owned group. “I think it’s a tentpole for any station trying to come back,” Staab says. “You’ve got to get mornings right.”

Newsroom chiefs say, with a growing percentage of the viewing public staring at digital platforms throughout the day, morning news plays a vital role in ensuring that a viewer sticks with the local station brand on the various devices after they leave for work in the morning. “With 50% of our audience on smartphones and tablets, weather and traffic relevancy is probably at its peak,” says Tribune’s Charlier. “We can touch you on multiple distribution platforms with our content.”

And while Oprah Winfrey was an afternoon show for the large majority of its station partners, some suggest the syndication giant’s departure from broadcast television in 2011 has prompted programmers to rethink not only the Oprah slot, but time slots up and down on the schedule. “People are reassessing all the time periods, saying, ‘Hmmm, what can we do differently?’” says Northcott. “I think it’s an ongoing discussion for a strong news station—does this create an opportunity for us to do a news and information show in an up to now nontraditional time period?”

Out of Print

In many markets, a decreased relevance of newspapers has also spelled opportunity for local TV. When the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News cut delivery to three days a week in 2009, the stations in DMA No. 11 promptly expanded their a.m. news offerings to reach out to what they saw as a suddenly underserved news consumer. “When the daily papers were no longer daily, there was an uptick in morning news viewership,” says Marla Drutz, vice president and general manager at WDIV.

More recently, WJBK Detroit pushed Wendy Williams from 10 a.m. to noon to create a mammoth 7½-hour news block, in an effort to reinforce the station’s profile as a tireless advocate in the struggling market. “The sheer volume of news we have gives us a significant advantage in serving our community,” says Jeff Murri, WJBK VP/general manager.

Of course, the onslaught of political monies that is set to arrive in advance of Election Day is a factor for stations as well. Some $2.5-$3.2 billion is expected to be spent on spot TV, according to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group. The candidates’ media buyers want news inventory in all dayparts. “They’ve always bought mornings, but really wanted 6 and 10 and 11 p.m. That’s all changed,” says Leider. “They’re going to [increasingly] look at morning news, and that drives the rates up.”

How Much Is Too Much?

Many deride stations’ morning programs as rife with stale overnight “news,” the rehashing of other media’s morning headlines, gossamer bits on cooking and fashion and vapid # irtation among toothsome anchors—a one-hour show, perhaps, stretched across two or three or more hours. One can fairly wonder how much of a morning megacast’s content truly fits stations’ mandate to inform and serve the public.

Stations are trying to change that perception by increasing the resources they are pouring into mornings. KPTV Portland (Ore.), for one, went from a lone reporter in the a.m. a few years back to three news reporters and one feature reporter. The competition, says VP/GM Patrick McCreery, has done the same—while mimicking, he believes, KPTV’s attention-grabbing writing (one tends to hear the phrase “You don’t want to miss this!” a lot in Portland) and frequent time and temperature hits. “The others are competing more aggressively and adopting what we do,” McCreery says. “As a result, the level of competition has skyrocketed.”

The level of revenue has, too. While a morning commercial may never command the pricetag of a late news spot, numerous general managers speak of considerable inventory pressure in the mornings, and a piece of the revenue pie that has started to rival the cash coming out of late news. For KPTV, mornings have gone from around 25% of the station’s news revenue five years ago to 45-50%.

Once occupying the bottom of the talent pecking order, the increased relevancy of morning news has elevated the profile of the morning anchor. One GM says the goal for late news anchors is to not turn people off, while the aim for the station’s morning anchors is to turn people on—and give them a reason to tune in tomorrow, and the day after that.

If the early a.m. has traditionally been a stepping-stone for talent to more prestigious dayparts, some anchors, such as morning stalwarts Kris Ketz (KMBC Kansas City) and Tim Ryan (KDFW Dallas), are proving too valuable to move off dawn duty. “I’ve been in the business a long time, and the morning person was not a significant person at the station,” says WSVN’s Leider. “Now it is.”

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