News: The early bird gets the viewer

Morning newscasts are starting earlier to serve shift workers and commuters.

What are you doing at 4:30 in the morning? A lot of Americans are watching television. According to U.S. Nielson ratings, 16% of American households have their TV sets on at that time, a rate that has doubled in the past 15 years, and broadcasters are responding. Stations throughout the U.S. have moved to 4:30 a.m. start times, and on Sept. 20, New York news network WPIX will start airing at 4 a.m.

Analysts aren’t sure why so many more people are up at the wee hours, but many suspect it’s a combination of more people staying up late, and longer commute times forcing others to get up earlier.

Rick Edmonds, a media analyst for the Poynter Institute in Florida says it’s true longer commuting times may be responsible for Americans turning on their TVs earlier. Whatever the reason, broadcasters are hoping to sell more advertising.

“Local news is the best money-maker,” he says, which gives smaller networks a leg up on national networks running global news cycles. “Networks get to keep all the advertising dollars sold, and it’s not really accompanied by an investment in additional staff.” Edmonds says for the small players, other than updating the weather, live anchors are mostly recycling content.

In Canada, the earliest morning shows are Global’s 5:30 a.m. local news broadcasts in Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver. The station tried morning shows in both Montreal and Toronto, but cancelled both in the past two years for financial reasons. The earliest programs in central Canada air at 6 a.m. and Atlantic Canada at 7 a.m. Numbers from the Television Bureau of Canada show that consistently for the past six years, the 4 a.m. to 5 a.m. slot has had the fewest viewers, with an audience size about one-fifth of the peak time between 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. Still, Canadian broadcasters aren’t overlooking the value of starting early.

Shaw Communications, which last month acquired the rights to Canwest Global Communications, announced it will invest $43 million to launch new morning-show newscasts in Toronto, Regina, Saskatoon and Winnipeg.

Crystal Garrett, who was last year’s full-time anchor for the 7 a.m. CTV Atlantic news, says just because networks put money into morning shows doesn’t mean they add resources. She was at Global in 2002 when they started a 6 a.m. morning show in 2002 and says instead of hiring someone new, the same anchor just came in earlier.

She says in terms of producing new content for morning shows without more staff, most scoops come from people calling in. Garrett sees the advantage of being a network with the earliest show as catching viewers first and hoping they continue to watch your station, build an affinity for it, and call in with news tips.

Troy Reeb, senior VP of news and current affairs at Global, says that to compete in today’s industry, networks need to produce news 24/7, and Global is looking to target people with jobs that require shiftwork or odd hours. “If the boss comes in and you’re watching Seinfeld, you might be in trouble,” he says. “But watching the news may actually be a boon to your work.”

Reeb says morning-show peak ratings remain at 7:20 a.m., and the real goal of earlier broadcasts is to aggregate enough content to draw in advertisers rather than airing low-value infomercials.

He says once a network has covered its baseline costs, producing an extra hour of content in the morning pays for itself. “Let’s not pretend there’s actual news happening at this time,” says Reeb, adding most content on local networks is generated throughout the day and repackaged live. “This is content they have full control over and can wring every last nickel out of.”