IT MAY SEEM FRIVOLOUS, BUT BIG MONEY IS AT STAKE IN A.M. NEWS
It's 6:15 a.m. on a Monday and there is a contingent of sexy, happy, blow-dried people in Los Angeles who really, really want to be in your homes. Their jobs depend on it.
The morning news on television is a fundamentally different animal from the newscasts at other times of the day. It is simultaneously more competitive, more frivolous and more profitable.
In Los Angeles, there are six different stations presenting a morning show at 6 a.m., making it not only the most competitive time of the day, but one of the most competitive time slots for TV news in any market.
The battle is ferocious, and the winners change with every quarter hour and every sweeps period. In the early part of the November sweeps, from Nov. 4 to Nov. 21, KABC-TV's "Good Morning America" was winning the household ratings race in the critical 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. time slot, with a rating of 3.84. But just a few months ago, during the February sweeps, KABC was No. 4 out of five English-language stations with news during that time.
When the May sweeps roll along, another station most likely will have won local bragging rights.
The number of viewers at this hour is relatively small. In fact, fewer people tune in at any point during the 5 a.m.-to-9 a.m. slot than are watching the early evening news at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. and far fewer than the number watching the late news.
But advertisers want to buy time in the morning to the point where they're willing to pay pretty much the same rates as they would for higher-rated early-evening news shows.
Part of the explanation has to do with demographics. Most of the morning viewers are women aged 25 to 54, who tend to control the family purse strings, as well as commuters checking traffic reports before going to work.
More to the point, though, is the time of day.
"We're trying to place the advertising as close to the 'purchase decision' as possible," said Shane Ankeney, director of media strategy with ad agency TBWA Chiat/Day. "The morning is kind of a desirable time slot. People are starting their day, and (the commercial) is something to remind them as they go into their day."
Fast-food advertisers want to make early-morning commuters hungry for their breakfast specials. Consumer product companies want to catch housewives early, before they go to the supermarket. Web site companies want to get business people before they go to work and log onto their computers.
The result is that stations can charge a premium for time during the early-morning shows. And these shows also are comparatively cheap to produce making them lucrative profit generators for most television stations.
"In the morning, a news show is very easy to do because you have all the news from the night before that you can recycle," said Joe Saltzman, a journalism professor at USC and former news director at KCBS-TV Channel 2. Indeed, much of the morning news content consists of repackaged stories taken straight out of the morning newspapers and read by a station's anchors.
NBC's "Today Show," ABC's "Good Morning America" and CBS's early news pretty much had the local market to themselves until 1991, when KTLA-TV Channel 5 started its locally produced morning news. The idea was to compete with the national network shows by presenting local news of interest to Angelenos, with more traffic and weather as well as local sports and entertainment.
But viewers accustomed to network happy talk didn't embrace the show. So KTLA got happier.
"People at that hour of the day don't want to be hammered," said Jeff Wald, KTLA's news director. "In the morning, I think they wake up in an optimistic mood, looking forward to the day, and you have to present the news in a lighter way."
So now, KTLA has an even chattier, more personality-focused format than that presented by the networks, leavened with more coverage of local (rather than national) news. So does KTTV-TV Channel 11, which jumped into the fray with its own local newscast in 1993.
"It's like having breakfast and getting dressed with old friends," Saltzman said. "You get to feel comfortable with them."
The economics of morning news also differs greatly, depending on whether a station is airing a locally produced or a network show. Insiders say network shows tend to be more profitable, even though affiliates only get to keep a portion of the commercial time sold during the broadcast, with the rest going to the network. (Local stations like KTLA and KTTV get to keep all the commercial time for themselves.) But the network shows still tend to be more profitable because the affiliate stations not only get paid by the network, they have scant production costs the local station only has to pay for short traffic and weather cut-in segments within the show.
"If the question is, would I rather have the 'Today Show' and the profit I make off it, or a self-produced show and the profit I'd make off it, I would much rather have the 'Today Show,' " said Ray Heacox, president and general manager of KNBC-TV Channel 4.
But in TV, ratings always rule, because they determine how much a station can charge advertisers for air time.
KTLA, KNBC and KABC tend to run a close race for the L.A. ratings crown from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. During the first weeks of the November sweeps, from Nov. 4 to Nov. 22, the three stations were trading places as the top-rated English-language station in the market nearly every quarter hour during that time frame.
But pity KCBS. At 7 a.m., when the ratings at KABC, KNBC and KTLA ranged between 3.72 and 4.15, KCBS could manage only a 0.93.
Heacox said that, at a certain point, a self-produced show with good ratings is going to be a lot more profitable for a station than a network show with bad ratings, though defining where that point lies is all but impossible.
Even if morning audiences are relatively small, they're growing faster than audiences at other times of the day. An increasing workforce means more commuters who want to check traffic and weather before heading off to work. As a result, TV stations are devoting more resources to morning news than ever.
"I think probably all the stations have committed more staff and equipment to the morning news than they did before," Wald said.
Indeed, KTTV officials proudly point out that as of Nov. 1, the station began using not one but two helicopters. A few years ago, such extravagance would have been unheard-of.
"In '93 when I left (the TV news business), most people looked at morning news as a loss leader," said Pete Noyes, who was formerly managing news editor at two local stations. "Nobody wanted to put money into it, and it really had to be an emergency for them to use a helicopter."
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