Local TV's Morning Jam

Stations go bumper-to-bumper on traffic information

Commuters in West Palm Beach, Fla., were able to pick up a few new weapons in their daily battle against traffic recently. Last week, Hearst-Argyle's WPBF plugged in the Beat the Traffic software, featuring 3-D animated graphics, real-time reports gleaned from GPS units and bottom-of-the-screen crawls. The station also added a full-time traffic reporter in former Miss Cuban-American Nathalie Pozo.

News Director Joe Coscia says the bump in commute coverage is vital to viewers in Nielsen's No. 38 DMA. “Anywhere you go, traffic is an issue,” he says. “It's become a staple of news programming: weather, news, traffic.”

While wireless technology has given rise to telecommuting, the concept has hardly taken a bite out of the nation's bumper-to-bumper traffic anxiety. One study shows that there are 3.5 million “extreme commuters” who schlep 90 minutes or more each way, almost double the 1990 figure. As the suburbs in markets such as Atlanta and Nashville stretch that much farther from the urban center, people are getting up—and tuning in—earlier, making the once-sleepy daypart increasingly competitive for news. And the linchpin for viewers and stations is the ever-increasing reliance on traffic information.

“As late news numbers have gone down, early news numbers have gone up,” says Bruce Northcott of research firm Crawford Johnson & Northcott. “The way we consume news has changed, and viewers know it's not just recycled news from last night in the morning—it's information of value.”

Indeed, many more are tuning in at dawn. In West Palm, for one, Nielsen reports that HUT (households using television) levels between 5-6 a.m. went from 16 to 18 from November 2002 to November 2007, a 13% bump. For WPBF, the 5-9 a.m. local news window garners 24 (household) gross ratings points, up from 19 five years ago. In numerous markets, early a.m. HUT levels are more than half those of lucrative late news, pushing stations to reallocate resources. “Most stations have simultaneously shifted resources to the Web and the early morning in the last few years in response to viewer demand for timely weather and traffic,” says Frank N. Magid TV President Steve Ridge.

Stations are tapping a wide range of media to relay up-to-the-minute information to viewers and compete with cable's traffic offerings, such as Cablevision's Metro Traffic & Weather channel. Triangle Software, which manufactures Beat the Traffic, has agreements with 18 stations nationwide (the package costs around $60,000 to $85,000 per year). Fox's KTTV Los Angeles is working with CalTrans to add traffic cameras in outlying areas such as Long Beach. Tribune's WPIX New York has tackled Manhattan's legendary congestion by doubling its traffic reportage in the morning and producing video updates, sponsored by Chevy, every 30 minutes on the Web during afternoon drive-time. The station is also providing updates to commuters' mobile devices with Traffic.com.

Last August, Belo's KVUE Austin launched Traffic Vue, a news segment that runs every 10 minutes from 5-9 a.m., and named former 10 p.m. news reporter Jim Bergamo its traffic anchor. President/General Manager Patti C. Smith says naming a dedicated anchor is a response to the growth Austin has experienced; the DMA is expected to gain 400,000 residents from 2001 to 2011. “Austin is years behind in terms of infrastructure,” says Smith. “When you grow that fast, the city just can't keep up.”

At least one station manager sees new arrivals as potential recruits in the fight to deliver timely news. Fox-owned KRIV Houston has partnered with the commuter van service VPSI to do live phone interviews with vanpoolers on the road. Launching the program last month, KRIV has a dozen commuter correspondents. “Traffic has always been a priority here,” says KRIV VP/News Director Kathy Williams. “But the creativity we use to cover it has picked up.”

Station managers say jazzing up commuter coverage has bolstered their morning news and introduced advertisers to new platforms. KDFW Dallas, for one, signed up auto supplier Service King to sponsor its new Fox4 The Road Web page. Some chalk the traffic coverage up to performing a critical community service, while others insist it will reap financial benefit in the longer term. “We're giving viewers better product, which means better ratings,” says WPBF's Coscia, “which in turn grows revenue.”

E-mail comments to michael.malone@reedbusiness.com