Local TV

Stations Rising -- And Shining

It’s all sunny side up for local television’s sizzling morning newscasts 1/09/2012 12:01:00 AM Eastern

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.”

E-mail comments to mmalone@nbmedia.com
and follow him on Twitter: @BCMikeMalone

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