Stations in Boston, New York, Washington and other cities are adding 4:30 a.m. newscasts this month, joining a backward march that started in earnest a few years ago. And those are not even the earliest. One station in New York, WPIX, will move up its start time to 4 a.m. on Sept. 20.
In catering to the earliest of the early risers, stations are reacting to the behavior patterns that are evident in the Nielsen ratings. Simply put, Americans are either staying awake later or waking up earlier — and either way, they are keeping the television on.
In the past 15 years, the number of households that have a TV set on at 4:30 has doubled, to 16 percent this year from 8 percent in 1995. At 11:30 p.m., by comparison, when most local newscasts end, 44 percent of televisions are on, up 10 percent from the levels 15 years ago.
And although all TV newscasts skew toward older demographics, in New York, the percentage of viewers under 35 watching from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. is higher than at any other time of day, an important part of the advertising pitch for an industry that chases young people. “We’re going to where the viewers are,” said Dave Davis, the general manager of WABC in New York.
Already, three stations in New York have 4:30 a.m. start times. And later this month, WABC and the CBS station, WCBS, will as well. Their viewers are apparently not just insomniacs; news executives say they hear from grateful late-shift workers, suburban commuters and parents of infants (and, yes, the occasional late-night club-hopper).
“Commutes have increasingly cut into what we usually describe as sleep time,” said Bill Carey, the news director of WPIX, an affiliate of the CW.
But the new newscasts are as much a reaction to the economics of local television as they are to changing habits. Local TV revenues plummeted when the recession began, causing many stations to lay off employees. Now they are trying to produce more news with fewer people. Almost uniformly, station executives say they do not add staff members when they add early morning shows.
Some stations do not even have reporters for their earliest hours, instead having anchors introduce the taped reports from their 11 p.m. newscasts. Even when they have reporters out and about, they are largely rehashing the prior night’s news — while standing outside in the dark, no less.
News executives say an earlier start time spurs ratings gains later in the morning, like a snowball rolling down a steep hill.
“It just creates more morning inventory for advertisers, and that’s where TV stations are making their money now, in the morning,” said Steve Ridge, president of the media strategy group for Frank N. Magid Associates, a consultant firm for TV stations.
It also appears to lengthen viewing times over all. Once a household’s television is turned on in the morning, it typically stays on for hours and hours, like a cash register left open for stations to pillage.
Two stations in Chicago made the 4:30 move this summer, joining the NBC affiliate, which has been on at that half-hour since 2007. (NBC calls that newscast “Barely Today,” a riff on the 7 a.m. national morning show, “Today.”) Stations in Philadelphia; Tampa, Fla.; Toledo, Ohio; and Kansas City, Mo.; to name a few, have announced newscasts at 4:30, timed to the start of the new TV season.