WAKE-UP CALL

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Aside from a small group of insomniacs and night watchmen, the 2 a.m. to 7 a.m. broadcasts of local TV stations have rarely burned up the ratings charts. At least, not until recently: In Boston, combined ratings for local morning newscasts have risen 27 percent over the past five years for the city's ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates. In New York, ABC's ratings for the 5 a.m. hour are up 70 percent since 1992, according to Nielsen Media Research.

As Americans go to sleep earlier, wake up earlier and commute farther to begin longer workdays, many are turning on their TV sets before they've had their first cup of coffee. Today, a growing number of young, professional and upscale viewers are tuning in for their news fix as early as 5 a.m. According to Nielsen, the number of viewers at that early hour has jumped to 12 million so far this year, from 9.4 million in 1999. By 6 a.m., 19 million Americans are watching TV, up from 15.7 million just three years ago. Programmers and advertisers have taken note of these early risers — and their attractive demographics.

“This is clearly the only growth area right now for local television news,� says Deborah Potter, executive director of NewsLab, a Washington, D.C.-based research and training nonprofit for local TV news. “Local stations are jumping in to take advantage of it.�

Knowing that viewers are out there — and awake — most network affiliates have almost entirely replaced the old network overnight feeds with original local programming. Stations that began programming at 6:30 a.m. in the 1980s, expanded to 6 a.m. in the early 1990s and are now hitting the air at 5 a.m. Recognizing the shift, Nielsen last November began tracking viewers of local stations at 5 a.m. The move follows the ratings giant's 1996 expansion of its overall ratings services to the 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. portion of the day.

To be sure, early morning news viewership is still relatively small — the total number of “households using television� (HUTs) at 6 a.m. is still only half of the combined viewership for 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts. For example, in New York, the country's largest market, the HUT levels were 22 percent at 5 a.m. in November 2001, compared with 49 percent at 5 p.m. However, some station managers say a successful morning show can draw the same audience as the 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. news slot.

According to Michael Carson, vice president and general manager of WHDH, Boston's NBC affiliate, ratings for the morning and evening newscasts are comparable. During the 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. hour, ratings average a 4 (approximately 4.2 million households), levels not uncommon for the 5 p.m. or 5:30 p.m. evening news. Carson estimates that the number of unduplicated viewers in the morning is four times that number, because during this time, most people watch in 15-minute increments, whereas in the evening, they're more likely to stay tuned for the full program. Not only are there more morning viewers, but they're the kind advertisers covet: Among 18- to 49-year-olds, combined ratings for Boston's CBS, ABC and NBC local newscasts airing between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. have risen 60 percent over the past five years.

Stations have also discovered that viewers are actively seeking the kind of information local news provides (weather, traffic, emergency bulletins, school closures, overnight top stories, etc.). News programmers like Steve Riley, director of creative services for ABC affiliate WSB in Atlanta, say that early morning viewers tune in briefly for news to help them perpare for the day, before they scurry out the door.“In a city like Atlanta, with its road congestion, no matter where you live, people need to know traffic and weather before they leave home for the day,� Riley says.

Lifestyle trends are certainly influencing the consumption of early morning local news. For one, Americans are getting less sleep these days. In 1942, 59 percent of Americans told the Gallup Organization they slept eight or more hours a night; today only 27 percent enjoy that luxury.

According to the Sleep Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research organization devoted to the study of sleep, in 2001, most Americans (68 percent) went to sleep between 10 p.m. and midnight on weekdays; 70 percent wake up between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m., with almost one-third (31 percent) waking up before 6 a.m.

Commute times have also increased in many cities. “More people are watching the news earlier because the commute time is getting longer,� says Bob Sieber, senior vice president of research at CNN. Suburban sprawl means more workers are living further away from their workplaces. In 1983, “rush hour� was a three-hour time block. In 1999, that number doubled to almost six hours, according to the Urban Mobility Study from the Texas Transportation Institute. The percentage of commuters traveling 45 minutes or more grew to 14.6 percent in 2000, from 12.5 percent in 1990, according to the Census Bureau.

It looks like commute times will continue to drag on. While the Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey from the Census Bureau is not expected to be released until later this month, Alan E. Pisarski, an expert on travel behavior and author of Commuting in America (ENO Transportation Foundation, 1996), expects the survey to reveal higher percentages of people beginning their commutes earlier.

These early risers who switch on the local news represent two important audiences for advertisers: the young and the affluent. Steve Kalb, vice president and director of broadcast media at Wenham, Mass.-based advertising agency Mullen, says advertisers are drawn to morning TV because of the appealing demographics of its viewers. “If you're trying to reach the upscale, mobile commuter, you want to get them first thing during the morning,� Kalb says. “The local affiliates all jumping on board beginning at 5 a.m. means that now you can reach an attractive demographic qualitatively at that hour.�

While the morning news reaches a broad audience, its overall viewership is younger than for the evening news, and reaches the 18- to 49-year-old demographic more effectively. At WABC in New York, from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m., 61 percent of viewers are in the 18- to 49-year-old bracket; for the 11 p.m. local news broadcast, only 35 percent of this group is tuning in.

And like other early morning news programs, WABC also reaches a more gender-balanced audience in the morning (52 percent female at 5 a.m., compared with 67 percent female at 5 p.m. and 60 percent at 11 p.m.). Affiliates say young professionals are a major part of their viewership. Pat Liguori, director of WABC-TV research, says the early morning news reaches white-collar and professional workers, suburban commuters and Wall Street early risers.

Morning news is also appealing to advertisers because consumers are “fresh� at that time, whereas in the evening, half their consumer activity is finished for the day. “If you're selling gas or cars or coffee or Dunkin' Donuts or a newspaper,� Kalb says, “you want to hit them before they start their business day.�

For busy professionals, local TV news is a convenient way to get information. Morning TV news, unlike the newspaper or the Internet, allows viewers to multitask. It's a lot easier to turn on the television in the morning and watch while getting dressed or preparing the kids for school, than to do these tasks while reading a newspaper or scrolling through Internet pages.

The quality of such programming is another story. Early morning news devotes far more time to traffic and weather than evening news broadcasts. According to “Morning Lite,� a 2000 study on local TV news, conducted by Washington, D.C.-based think tank, the Project for Excellence in Journalism, about half of morning news stories use unnamed sources or no sources, and more than half are about everyday incidents or common crime instead of broader issues.

However, the “Morning Lite� study also identifies the 6 a.m. time slot as “TV news' fastest growing time slot.� And it's not only fast-growing, but profitable. Carl Gottlieb, deputy director of the Project and director of the local TV news study, says the budgets for such programs are kept small, even as revenues have increased. Although the advertising rates stations charge for that hour are still low, according to Gottlieb, “early morning local news has sort of come from being a loss leader to the point where stations are probably making money.�

Despite any shortcomings in quality, local news shows continue to draw a growing crowd. As of 1999, 58 percent of Americans told Gallup researchers they watch local TV news from stations in their area everyday, up from 55 percent in 1995, compared with 32 percent who say they watch national morning news and interview programs daily. Local TV news is also the most trusted of all news sources tracked by Gallup. Nearly three-fourths of Americans (73 percent) say they can trust their local television news, compared with 46 percent who trust weekly newsmagazines, 43 percent who trust C-SPAN and 49 percent who trust Sunday morning news programs. It seems Americans have developed a new habit: They like a shot of local news with their morning cup of coffee.


Additional reporting by Katarzyna Dawidowska.

MORE TELEVISIONS TUNE IN

The percentage of households tuned in at 5 a.m. has almost doubled in a decade.

THE PERCENT OF HOUSEHOLDS WITH TELEVISIONS ON DURING THE FOLLOWING TIME PERIODS:

SEASON 5-5:30 a.m. 5:30-6 A.m. 6-6:30 A.m. 6:30-7 A.m.
2001-2002 11.4% 12.6% 18.2% 21.9%
2000-2001 10.9% 12.0% 17.4% 21.1%
1999-2000 10.4% 11.6% 16.8% 20.8%
1998-1999 9.5% 10.6% 15.8% 20.0%
1997-1998 8.8% 9.9% 14.9% 18.9%
1996-1997 8.6% 9.7% 14.7% 18.6%
1995-1996 8.5% 9.5% 14.4% 18.4%
1994-1995 7.8% 8.5% 13.3% 17.3%
1993-1994 7.6% 8.4% 13.0% 16.9%
1992-1993 7.3% 8.0% 12.5% 16.3%
1991-1992 6.6% 7.2% 11.4% 15.4%
Source: Nielsen Media Research

THE NEWS IN NEW YORK

The number of working women who watch TV at 6 a.m. has increased by 86 percent in nearly a decade.

PERSONS USING TELEVISION:

NOV. 1992 NOV. 2001 % CHANGE
Women 18 + 6% 10% + 67%
Women 18-34 4% 6% + 50%
Women 18-49 6% 9% + 50%
Women 25-54 7% 12% + 71%
Working women 7% 13% + 86%
Men 18+ 5% 8% + 60%
Men 18-34 3% 5% + 67%
Men 18-49 5% 7% + 40%
Men 25-54 5% 9% + 80%
Total “house-holds using television� 14% 22% + 57%
Source: Nielsen New York VIP, November 1992, 2001

NIGHT FALLS

While early morning local news is on the upswing, evening national news viewership is on the decline.

HOUSEHOLD U.S. RATING:

ABC'S WORLD NEWS TONIGHT NBC'S NIGHTLY NEWS CBS'S EVENING NEWS AVERAGE RATING
2001-2002* 7.0 7.3 6.4 6.9
2000-2001 7.0 7.3 6.4 6.9
1999-2000 7.3 7.6 6.4 7.1
1998-1999 7.6 7.8 6.9 7.4
1997-1998 7.7 8.1 7.5 7.8
1996-1997 8.2 8.2 7.0 7.8
1995-1996 8.9 8.1 7.2 8.1
1994-1995 9.6 8.0 7.9 8.5
1993-1994 10.2 9.1 9.0 9.4
1992-1993 10.5 8.8 9.1 9.5
1991-1992 10.0 8.5 9.0 9.2
1990-1991 10.4 8.9 8.9 9.4
*Note: Each Nielsen rating point equals a certain amount of households depending on the total number of households with a television in a given season. For example, for the 2001-2002 season, a rating equals approximately 1.06 million homes.
Source: Nielsen Media Research

OVER BREAKFAST IN BOSTON

Viewership of early morning local news among those 18 to 49 has risen 60 percent in 5 years.

COMBINED RATINGS OF BOSTON'S CBS, ABC, AND NBC LOCAL NEWSCASTS, MON.-FRI., 6 A.M.-7 A.M.

RATING (ALL HOUSEHOLDS) RATING (PERSONS 18-49)
November 2001 14 8
November 1996 11 5
Percent increase 27% 60%
Source: Nielsen Media Research

LOCAL TOPICS

On local television news programs, arts and investigative pieces each account for less than one percent of stories covered.

PERCENTAGE OF STORIES BY BROAD TOPIC CATEGORY:

MOST POPULAR NEWS TOPICS IN 2001 LOCAL NATIONAL
Crime/law/courts 21% 4%
Science/tech 7% 4%
Defense 4% 5%
Politics/policy 7% 2%
Celebrations 6% 2%
Bizarre events 5% 2%
NOTE: Study was for local news overall in all time slots.
Source: Columbia Journalism Review/Project for Excellence in Journalism
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