One commodity that a faltering economy cannot shrink is the number of hours in the day, which may go far in explaining why both NBC and ABC are choosing the middle of a recession to join CBS and CNN in offering overnight news shows.
Beginning tonight, 145 of NBC's 209 affiliates will air as little as 90 minutes or as much as 4 1/2 hours of "NBC Nightside," a new overnight newsmagazine that the network will deliver by satellite from Charlotte, N.C., every night of the week. KNBC Channel 4 will run it from 4 to 5:30 a.m.
The same network that in 1983 killed off its 17-month-old "NBC News Overnight" program, anchored by Lloyd Dobyns and Linda Ellerbee, has returned to the overnight news business because its affiliates demanded it, according to NBC officials.
"They probably paid Ellerbee and Dobyns together more in a week than we will spend to produce the whole program," said "Nightside" producer Bob Horner. "My staff gets mad at me when I say we produce it cheap, but we feel adequately funded and we don't have to get $12 million in advertising revenue a year just to stay on the air."
Horner said that NBC executives have advised him that "Nightside" could eventually aspire to an audience of between 1 million and 2 million viewers.
Since January, he and a small cadre of editors, producers and technicians have operated a satellite clearing house for affiliate news reports and features from Charlotte, independent of NBC News in New York. The original purpose was to supply all the affiliates with a daily selection of original news programming--sort of a video cooperative.
But this news service has turned out a bonus in video segments, said Horner. As of last week, his tiny staff was processing up to 200 news segments a day.
"We've become a giant feed service," said Horner.
The result is enough cheap raw material to more than fill 4 1/2 hours a night, seven days a week.
ABC, which has been producing "Nightline" since 1980, plans to start its own overnight news programming after the first of the year. CBS, meanwhile, scaled back but never gave up on the "Nightwatch" news show that it launched in 1982. It airs weeknights at 2 a.m. on KCBS Channel 2.
NBC's "Nightside" and ABC's "World News Overnight" will offer continuous, all-night coverage in a series of half-hour segments. Programming will consist of a mixture of live and taped coverage of domestic and international news, business, sports, weather, entertainment and human-interest features.
Cost-effective technology, changing viewer habits and a willingness on the part of the affiliates to saddle some of the responsibility of producing segments went into the decision to resurrect overnight news programming at NBC.
But producing the program in a right-to-work state like North Carolina makes it more cost-effective too, according to broadcast union officials.
"I think they have taken work that we could have performed in New York and set it up in North Carolina," said Tom Kennedy, an official with a Los Angeles local of the National Assn. of Broadcast Employees and Technicians. NABET represents about 5,000 NBC employees, but not those who are among the 30 to 35 who will launch "NBC Nightside" in Charlotte.
"Nightside's" Judy Jenkins said that Charlotte was selected because it has a good airport with frequent USAir flights to accommodate correspondents and facilitate videotape delivery, new studio facilities at NBC affiliate WCNC-TV and early satellite access to European news stories. She also acknowledged that producing "Nightside" would probably be considerably less expensive than it would be if it originated from 30 Rockefeller Center, NBC's New York headquarters for the past half century.
NABET's Kennedy said that a North Carolina "Nightside" might take jobs away from NABET's New York members, but that ABC's entry in the all-night news derby, "World News Overnight," probably will not.
In fact, "Overnight's" producer, David Bohrman, said that he has been flooded with resumes from laid-off broadcasters to fill the estimated 20 staff positions it will take to put the news show on.
The ABC experiment, to premiere on Jan. 6, 1992, will be offered to affiliates from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. Monday through Friday.
"Producing from Charlotte might be less expensive, but being in New York has great advantages," Bohrman said. "All the wire services originate from here and, when we do an event with Peter Jennings emanating from the world headquarters of ABC News, that means something special (to viewers)."
Bohrman says that 80% of ABC's 200 affiliates have already committed to carrying a minimum of four half-hour segments each night.
Bohrman traces the re-entry of NBC and ABC into the overnight news business to the success of cable in the past eight years.
"People are breaking out of traditional viewing patterns and staying up to watch CNN or HBO," he said.
Some stations have even gone so far as to fill the overnight void in their schedules by buying feeds from CNN and Conus Communications Company's All-News Channel. The new overnight shows will put all three networks on a footing to compete head-to-head with CNN and Conus for this growing overnight audience, Bohrman noted.