The streets are dark, the sun has not yet risen and most residents are still sleeping. But the daily war on the local TV front is already blazing.
It's a battle being waged from West Los Angeles to Burbank and fought with a steady stream of friendly bulletins about traffic, weather and a preview of the day's coming news. But don't mistake the pleasant tone of the pre-dawn newscasts at KCBS Channel 2, KNBC Channel 4, KTLA Channel 5, KABC Channel 7 and KTTV Fox 11, which belies what is fast becoming one of the most fiercely competitive time periods in regional news across the country.
FOR THE RECORD:
Morning news: An article in Tuesday's Calendar section about the increasing competition among early-morning television newscasts misspelled the last name of KOMU-TV News Director Stacey Woelfel as Woelsel. —
Driven largely by the dynamics of the 24-hour news cycle and the growth in early rising commuters, news stations have begun pouring considerable resources into winning the race for morning viewers. The most recent evidence — KTTV earlier this month added a 4:30 a.m. newscast, joining KABC, KNBC and KTLA (which, like the Los Angeles Times, is owned by the Tribune Co.) in the time slot.
"The morning was always considered an important day part, but now there's a deliberate effort to establish a leadership position in the morning," said Craig Robinson, general manager of KNBC. "There's been a lot more focus. People are getting up earlier and earlier."
For the last several weeks, KABC's "Eyewitness News" has come out on top at 4:30 a.m. with an average of 64,000 viewers. They are followed by KNBC with 31,000 viewers, KTTV with 25,000 and KTLA with 15,000. (At 5 and 6 a.m., "Eyewitness News" is still the leader, with KTTV coming in second and KNBC third.)
Before the start of the national newsmagazines on CBS ("CBS This Morning"), NBC ("Today") and ABC ("Good Morning America"), the early morning hours were considered a broadcast "ghetto" for local stations, who would fill those hours with low-profile newscasts, syndicated reruns or children's shows.
But changing commuter demographics and lifestyle habits have made reaching viewers earlier than ever a priority for local television markets — especially in Los Angeles, where KNBC initiated its 4:30 a.m. broadcast earlier this year following KTLA and KABC, who did so in the last several years.
"For the longest time, all the emphasis seemed to be on newscasts at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m.," said Stacey Woelsel, news director of KOMU-TV, the University of Missouri-owned NBC affiliate, who recently ended his term as chairman of the Radio Television Digital News Assn., a professional organization of news directors and electronic journalists. "I can remember when the morning show here used to be 15 minutes long. It was just a throwaway time. But now the audience is there and stations all over are starting to expand their operations."
Local stations are now heavily promoting their early morning programs and tapping popular anchors to showcase them. At 5 a.m. in Los Angeles, when KCBS jumps in the race following a network news show, the hour becomes the only part of the day when five local stations compete head-to-head with newscasts.
"More and more people have to wake up earlier because they have to commute longer distances to work," said Chris Schauble, who has been anchoring KNBC's early morning weekday morning newscasts for more than seven years. "Folks are getting up to go to the gym. Also, people tend to get busier later in the day, so they're compelled to get informed earlier, find out what happened last night and what's going to happen in the day."
Like any war, the struggle demands additional money and assets — and in many cases the stations are finding ways even in cash-strapped times to provide them. The newscasts are more than just talking heads these days.
"There's a full complement of resources that go into the morning effort," said Kevin Hale, vice president and general manager of KTTV. "We have lots of information and live shots, a full-time entertainment reporter. Our helicopter is up for traffic reports."
Although CNN and Fox provide 24-hour news coverage, their focus is on national and international coverage, giving smaller stations opportunities to focus on nearby neighborhoods and local issues. Traffic and weather are key elements for local stations.
"More and more people who live farther out have to know what traffic is like before they leave their homes," Hale said.
The tone of the early morning newscasts generally adopts a more relaxed approach to news than their counterparts that come later. The personalities poke and tease each other.