During a 1982 press conference in a restaurant in Baltimore's Little Italy, as WJZ-TV announced a new local news show at 6:30 a.m., Marty Bass looked over at his new co-anchor, a local broadcaster named Oprah Winfrey. "Oprah and I exchanged glances that said, 'You've got to be kidding,'" Bass recalls. "We wondered, could we even fill a half-hour? Who's going to be watching at that hour?" The station was hoping for a rating of "1 and some change."
He got "close to a 3 in the first book," and the change would eventually come in the way broadcasters programmed a time period once reserved for farm reports and Davey & Goliath. And while Winfrey, reportedly, moved on to other projects, Bass has become a Baltimore morning fixture, paired since the mid '80s with Don Scott for a 5-8 a.m. show—sharing the 7-8 hour with CBS's Early Show—
that has the flavor of drive-time radio.
The audience, apparently, was there long before the programming. Bass and Scott's Morning Edition
is among the strongest early performers in the country, but, over the years, the show has drawn competition from WBAL-TV, WMAR-TV and, only this year, from WBFF(TV). Many middle to large markets offer three pre-7 a.m. newscasts, and some larger markets have as many as five—and that doesn't count one or two local Spanish-language shows in larger markets.
Morning news has gotten bigger, more lucrative and earlier than envisioned even a few years ago, before additional Nielsen data covering the 2-6 a.m. hours prompted more stations to push their start times to 5:30 a.m. and, in many cases, 5 a.m.
"It's the only growth period left," says Jim Willi, outgoing president of AR&D TV consultants.
Insight Media Research reports that, since 1998, the number of stations with weekday news at 5:30 a.m. has nearly doubled, from just over 20%—with 6 a.m. newscasts up to 17% from 5%—while the number of stations doing noon newscasts has dropped to 46% from 51%.
"We're seeing two distinct patterns," says Scott Tallal, president of Insight. "For the people who tune in the earliest, it's a quiet time; unlike the people who are tuning in from 6 to 7—who brush their teeth and eat breakfast with the TV on as background."
Harry Stecker, general manager of local services for Nielsen Media Research, notes that, until recently, Nielsen was not reporting the 2-6 a.m. daypart, although metered markets could give advertisers some numbers and project some demographics based on the 7-9 audience. Nielsen's addition of the daypart, says Stecker, "was a recognition that there was an audience. It was a pretty widespread request. We gave it the accountability many stations needed."
For the past few years, 5-6 a.m. has been provided as an insert in Nielsen's Viewers in Profile book. Beginning in the October book, Nielsen's new CD format will provide 5 a.m.-5 a.m. coverage. Also in October, Nielsen will add four new Monday- through-Friday periods to the daypart section of the VIP: 5-5:30 a.m., 5:30-6 a.m., 5-6 a.m. and 2-5 a.m.
Jay Newman, a former news director and now general manager at WJZ-TV Baltimore, inherited Bass and Scott's morning show and added a half-hour when he took over in early 1999. Nielsen's measuring demographics, he says, "helped us get the full sales impact. We're finding that the household-demographic ratio is pretty strong. There are a lot of 18-49 viewers out there. These are the people working in offices, in construction, in the service industry."
In Boston, says WCVB's research director, Adrienne Lotoski, stations used their knowledge of the market to project demographics for early-morning news a few years before Nielsen expanded its service. "We knew from other research that people wanted news."
Mornings were a largely untapped mine. Some general managers say a successful morning show can not only draw the same audience but earn almost as much as the 5-6 p.m. or even 11-11:30 p.m. newscasts. While the cost-per-point is considerably lower—about 40% lower than early evenings and about 70% lower than for late news—the daypart is longer, and there's much more local inventory to sell. "More and more stations are telling me their morning news sometimes outdraws their evening," says Bob Papper, a professor at Ball State University and a leading researcher into local TV news.
"There's a serious professional going out the door by 8 a.m.," says Bill Carey, news director at WXYZ-TV Detroit. "There are a lot of advertisers willing to pay for that." For news directors as well as GM, he says, it's an opportunity to show off the local product.
Veteran General Manager Hank Price says that, when he left Greensboro, N.C., 10 years ago, the morning news at his station, WFMY-TV, dominated early programming with about a 70 share. Ten years later, he is running competitor WXII-TV, and, while WFMY-TV is still in first place, it wins with a 27 share.
It's a boom time for morning news, Price notes. "It's the big growth area. It's about lifestyle changes; the same reason 10 o'clock news programs are all the rage. People go to bed earlier; they get up earlier. They're not home at 6 p.m." the way they were.
"I remember when all stations did were cut-ins to the Today
show," says Steve Wasserman, a former news director now general manager of Post-Newsweek's KPRC-TV Houston. "It's hard to believe that, all those years, we didn't do news in the morning. Once we got in, the numbers grew dramatically. It's the last daypart where we hadn't planted the local flag. Morning audiences are more loyal," he continues. "They're not sitting there with the zapper; they're shaving or dressing." And in a down economy, with its lower cost-per-point, "morning news is a bit healthier. Advertisers are really interested in that daypart."
Says Willi, "People are listening to television, the way they listen to radio. They set their internal clocks to the set. They know that, when they're shaving, it corresponds to the weather or, when they're brushing their teeth, it's time for the traffic report."
"People are listening more than watching," agrees Howard Nass, executive director, local broadcast and spot broadcast, for TN Media. Yet they have gravitated toward television because "we've become a visual society."