- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 3, 2002

It's 5 a.m. on a Wednesday in late August, and the television airwaves are beaming local headlines into homes across Washington.
Flip the dial to any major station, and you will see the stories: Drought-stricken Maryland has new water restrictions. Olympic officials have rejected Washington's bid to host the 2012 Games. Police are investigating a double slaying in Silver Spring.
It's also raining. And the Beltway is jammed.
Who cares at this hour? In Washington, plenty of people.
"Mornings are the new prime time in local television," said David Roberts, vice president and news director at CBS affiliate WUSA-TV (Channel 9).
Commuters are waking up earlier than ever to battle traffic, and local television stations have responded by expanding their morning newscasts.
Until a few years ago, most stations only showed a half-hour of local news before network programs such as "Today" or "Good Morning America" signed on at 7 a.m.
Now local newscasts begin as early as 5 a.m., an hour once reserved for televangelists, farm reports and "Davey and Goliath." They are using reporters instead of leftovers from the night before, and they are bringing in their best anchors.
And their viewership is growing.
During the May ratings sweep, 200,032 local households tuned into the early-morning news on the four major network affiliates in Washington, according to Nielsen Media Research Inc. Most local newscasts run 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., and WTTG-TV (Channel 5) airs from 5:30 a.m. to 9 a.m.
This represented an 11.5 percent increase from the May 1997 sweep, when 179,397 households tuned in to local morning news. At that time, three of the four affiliates began their newscasts at 5:30 a.m.; the other signed on at 6 a.m.
In Washington and other big cities, early morning is the only time period in which the audience for local news is growing. More people still watch news in the evenings, but viewership for those programs is steadily declining.
Beth Cappel, a resident of Nanjemoy in Southern Maryland, turns on her television set before she heads out the door on weekdays at 5:15 a.m. to begin her commute to the District, where she works as a contract specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"I'm really only interested in the weather and traffic. When they give the weather, I'll turn around and look [at the set] because I want to see the weather map," Miss Cappel said.
Station executives create their newscasts with viewers like Miss Cappel in mind. Each program features a heavy dose of weather and traffic updates, which usually appear every 10 minutes, and headlines that repeat frequently.
"We know people don't have time to sit and watch us, so we designed a show that allows you to get the information you want, no matter when you drop in," said Lisa Rasmussen, executive producer of the morning newscasts on NBC affiliate WRC-TV (Channel 4), the top-rated station in Washington.
Morning news also may be popular because stations tend to avoid the sensational stories that plague so many evening newscasts, said Deborah Potter, executive director of NewsLab, a Washington nonprofit that advises newsrooms on coverage of complex stories.
In other words, she said, viewers are more likely to see stories about schools and government in the morning than they will be during the late news, which tends to focus on crime and celebrity-driven stories.
"The morning news is much more focused. It has a substantive feel," said Ms. Potter, a former reporter for CNN and CBS.
Advertisers are flocking to mornings because airtime is cheaper than during the evening news.
A major network affiliate in Washington charges between $600 and $700 for a 30-second commercial during the early-morning news, local advertising executives say. Stations charge between $6,000 and $7,000 for a 30-second spot on the evening news.
"Early mornings are a fairly cost-effective way to reach an upscale, working audience," said Deborah Cover-Lewis, president of Media Vision Inc., a Bethesda agency that purchases airtime for advertisers.
Stations in recent years have pumped more money into morning newscasts, although budgets have been tight. Most stations assign two reporters to the morning shift, a change from a few years ago, when stations simply ran taped pieces left over from the previous day's late news.
Stations also are putting some of their best anchors on in the mornings, a time period once reserved for fading stars or reporters taking their first stab at the anchor desk.
Two years ago, WUSA stunned its competitors when it moved marquee anchors Mike Buchanan and Andrea Roane to the morning shift. Its ratings since have risen dramatically.
Numbers also are up at ABC affiliate WJLA-TV (Channel 7), which overhauled its "Good Morning Washington" this year, pairing veteran reporter Andrea McCarren with newcomer Elliott Francis and bringing popular radio reporter Lisa Baden in to deliver traffic updates.
Executives say the audience growth could push them to expand morning news even further. Some have toyed with the idea of starting their programs at 4:30 a.m.
"It isn't hard to imagine a time when we'll be doing news all morning," said WRC anchor Joe Krebs.


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