October 1, 2000

Local TV News Project 2000

At 6 A.M. It's Morning Lite

By Susan Truitt

There's no way to make getting up in the morning easy, but local television news tries. Probably too hard. In most cases, cheerfulness and chat outdistance serious news. TV executives think the pre-eminent concern at that hour of the day is knowing whether to dress warmly and which route to drive to work.

For the first time, this year's local news study included half-hour morning newscasts. In TV news' fastest-growing time slot, researchers looked at the half-hour beginning at six a.m. in three cities: Detroit (the ninth largest market in the country), Birmingham (39) and Portland, Maine (80), eight stations in all.

It wasn't a pretty sight from the perspective of the traditional evening newscast. The best broadcast in the study could muster only a grade of B. That went to the No. 2 station in the smallest market reviewed, WGME in Portland. The rest earned "C's" or lower.

Here are some key findings:

  • Ninety-four percent of all morning news coverage was reactive, more than local news overall.

  • About half the morning news stories used unnamed sources or no sources, compared with a third in other time slots.
  • More than half the stories in the morning were about everyday incidents or everyday crime and were not connected to broader issues. That's 15 percent more than the average of all newscasts in the study.

Morning news has a hard time scoring on the quality scale devised for evenings because, by and large, the stations choose to play a different game at that hour — a game that depends on good humor and service delivered in a package with a thin veneer of news.

Does quality sell in this time slot? The results are inconclusive. In Detroit, where all three stations received grades of "C", the highest "C" (WJBK) had the best ratings trend. In Birmingham the results were mixed: the best grade in town was a "D," for WCFT, which had positive ratings, but the "F" station, WBRC, was also thriving.

First and foremost, the decision to put service first translates to "morning news gives the weather." And then more weather. Weather leads every broadcast. The current temperature is constantly on the screen (with a clock) and many stations now run a lower-third crawl updating the forecast frequently.

And it's ever so important to have the right messenger for all this service. My six years of producing morning television reinforced the conventional wisdom that the morning viewer is more likely to let a buddy into the house than some strong authority figure. Most ratings winners follow the "let your buddies help you get ready" formula.

In major metropolitan areas, "service" also includes traffic. In Detroit, weather and traffic make up about 45 percent of the half-hour broadcasts. Combine the cheerfulness and chat of your buddies with weather and traffic and there isn't much time for the kind of coverage that ranks high with the local TV professionals who established the study's quality scale.

Portland stations pay scant attention to traffic and score higher on the quality scale. Rush-hour traffic is not a major factor in Maine so the newscasts in the market have more time for the kind of reporting that the PEJ scale values.

Programming consultant Bill Carroll of Katz Television Group calls the conventional a.m. style "the 'we're-sharing-a-cup-of coffee' approach." Carroll, who has studied the dramatic growth and the content of local morning news over the last five years, says the viewer is the same as for later newscasts "but has very different expectations."

In the age of 24-7 news access, does this conventional wisdom still hold? Maybe not. Consider the growing popularity of no-nonsense Web sites, or business-dominated networks like CNBC.

The truth is that money, not just viewer habits, also explains "morning news lite."

At 6 a.m. in most communities, the number of households using television is about half of what it is at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. This means stations can charge only a fraction as much for advertising spots in the morning; the difference can be as great as tenfold. At most stations, this translates into fewer resources for morning news than for evening news.

In last year's study we reported on the clear correlation between staff size and news quality. Staff for writing and producing those early morning broadcasts is generally bare bones. And, to add to the producing problems, the staff often includes many inexperienced team members willing to work in the middle of the night to get their start in television.

You get the picture: this small, often very hard-working group gets the broadcasts on as best it can. It fills those half-hours with rewrites of material from the day before, updating with word changes here and there, but without the staff time to really improve or advance the material. And enterprise is the casualty of necessity. A classic example: one morning last February the top-ranked morning newscast, Maine's WGME, kicked off with a high-quality background piece, clearly from the day before, on a popular school superintendent who'd been killed several days earlier in an automobile accident. The next morning's update simply consisted of giving the conditions of the others hurt in the crash and the date of the memorial service. Of course if there is a big overnight story, many of these early newscasts report it. And in the bigger markets the early reporter will do a live shot. The Fox station in Detroit, WJBK, covered a dramatic overnight robbery of two casino winners on their way home, with a reporter live at 6 a.m. describing the action from one of the locations involved. But more often than not, the early reporter is re-packaging yesterday's news.

At stations that don't join network programming at 7 a.m. (like many Fox stations), morning staff size is often larger. And some staff members work all day preparing special material exclusively for the next day's morning show. But we saw little evidence of that kind of work in the eighty broadcasts studied here.

Morning News Is…

  • FAST-PACED: two-thirds of stories under 45 seconds
  • REACTIVE: only 2% of stories based on in-depth reporting
  • "GLITZY": more pop culture stories than other time slots
  • CAUTIOUS: over 40% of stories about non-controversial events
  • CHEERFUL: more celebration, how-to, and cooking segments than anyone else
  • AVERAGE GRADE: C

 

WGME's morning newscast in Portland stood above the others in this study for three reasons:

  • The station focused 21 percent of its stories on ideas, issues, or policy. That's close to double the average in the overall PEJ study.

  • WGME received an A for its range of topics.
  • And 15% of WGME's stories had three or more sources. That's three times the average of all morning news shows reviewed and it matches the average of those in other time slots.

WGME's 6 a.m. broadcast includes a daily, live call-in segment co-produced with a local talk-radio team. The topics are generally about news stories that are already generating local debate. We heard segments on the high cost of home heating oil, and the propriety of using the nickname "Redskins" for a high school football team. The segment clearly gives voice to a variety of viewpoints and underscores the station's commitment to cover issues with local relevance.

WGME's news director, Ron Wolfe, is on the same track as the news professionals who put the PEJ scale together. I asked him what he thought would help most to improve the a.m. ratings and his answer was short and sweet: "Quality, quality, quality."

WGME, a CBS affiliate, may be doing a strong job of bucking the trend toward "morning lite," but it is struggling in the ratings game against the local competition, WCSH, the NBC affiliate. This may be at least in part the result of its network's failure to come up with a viable early show. WCSH pulled a 55 share of the audience in February to WGME's 15 share. In most markets, the strong ratings of NBC's "Today" appear to give a major boost to the lead-in local morning fare.

But clearly WCSH is doing something right beyond being on NBC.

WCSH's general manager, Steve Thaxton, says his 6 a.m. is the most "attuned" newscast, "well tailored to Mainers." And he proudly points to the 90-plus share the station gets when it goes into full "Stormcenter" mode during severe weather. He calls weather "the ultimate news story" that helps build and keep a high trust level.

But on most days, the 6 a.m. newscast at this Gannett station is pretty standard fare — headlines, a day-old package, lots of weather and a CNBC business report.

There is one unusual element, a daily four-minute, pre-packaged homily produced by the nonsectarian First Radio Parish of America in the middle of the newscast. WCSH, the market's traditional ratings leader, has been airing the "Daily Devotions" segment for decades.

During the last decade, stations discovered that morning was one of the few time slots left with growth potential.

Katz Media estimates that the morning audience has increased by about 20 percent in the last five years. But Carroll, the programming consultant, notes that while many more viewers are now turning on their sets, average ratings for morning news have stayed just about the same.

Stations in at least three large markets — Los Angeles, Chicago and New York — have been successful with audiences by going to highly stylized and somewhat zany formats to meet the multiple demands of local morning news. These stations also bank on attracting viewers beyond the traditional news watcher, people who like a little spice along with the information they need.

Carroll says we should not be surprised if we see more non-traditional elements in the morning newscasts as producers search for ways to "scrap for attention" now that the arena is nearing full size. He adds, "It's not like the winners are already known."

Susan Truitt, a 30-year TV journalist, successfully fought the local morning news battle at WTTG in Washington as Executive Producer and Producer for 6 years.