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TMCNet:  Rise at 2, shine at 4:30: The life of (very) early morning TV news anchors

[March 27, 2011]

Rise at 2, shine at 4:30: The life of (very) early morning TV news anchors

Mar 27, 2011 (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- The trick is to shine this early in the day, even if the sun does not.

"Good morning, it's that magic hour: triple fours!" says anchor Todd McDermott, far more chipper than any person has the right to be on a dark, drizzly winter morning at exactly 4:44.

The scene is midway through the first half-hour of WPXI's 21/2-hour block of morning newscasts that begins at -- gasp! -- 4:30, and the setting is quiet, almost otherworldly.

Outside the studio's large modern facility in Summer Hill, thousands of Pittsburghers are starting to crawl out of bed and turn on their TVs.

Two of the area's Big 3 local stations started their 4:30 a.m. newscasts last year -- WPXI began last June; WTAE in September -- to respond to viewers who are rising earlier and earlier. Mr. McDermott is joined by Jennifer Abney at WPXI, and WTAE's regular morning anchors are Kelly Frey and Mike Clark.

At this hour, coffee shop workers are still at home. Convenience store attendants are behind their counters, but customers are scarce. The whirring, buzzing workforce has not yet hit the roads, leaving the morning TV people to become their links to the outside world.

And what a structured world it is at 4:30 a.m.: weather and traffic reports, and the occasional overnight breaking news story. Report, recycle, repeat.

Just the facts, please The average viewer is not looking for in-depth analysis, said Deborah Potter, executive director of NewsLab, an online nonprofit foundation in Chevy Chase, Md., established to help journalists of all media improve their craft.

Weather and traffic are repeated at least every 10 minutes because that's what people need.

Beyond the basics, news will be freshened as the morning progresses, leading up to the 6:30 newscasts. These promise the biggest dose of late-breaking information, leading up as they do to the networks' "Today" show and "Good Morning America." WPXI is leading the overall morning news ratings, followed by WTAE, which is closely trailed by KDKA.

The latter does not have a 4:30 a.m. newscast (local reports start at 5) but runs the early morning CBS News show, so the network rating in that time slot was factored in.

"Although we have certainly considered it, we currently don't have specific plans to expand to 4:30 a.m. at this time," said Christopher Pike, KDKA general manager.

During the most recent sweeps period ending March 2, WPXI had a 1.7 rating and a 13 share in the 25-to-54 demographic at 4:30 a.m., compared to 1.0 and 8 for WTAE.

PG VIDEO: EARLY START FOR ANCHORS The earlier broadcasts seem to be building an audience and are part of a growing national trend.

"We had wanted to do it for some time; we figured there was an appetite for it, a national trending, but because we had certain obligations [to network programming] in that time period, we couldn't do it," said Alex Bongiorno, WTAE news director.

In August, ABC lifted the restriction. "The minute they did, we jumped on it," Ms. Bongiorno said, adding that ratings are up in the time slot since switching to local news.

"Ten to 15 years ago we had trouble convincing advertisers there was an audience there," WPXI news director Mike Gold rick said. "It took a long time to get the ball rolling. But we're selling out these [ad] spots ... .

"We're dedicated to bringing news to folks 24/7, that's the world we live in with websites and mobile news. It's become a habit of people getting up and turning on the news." The cost to stations is small in relation to the benefits, Mr. Goldrick said. "It's just a little overtime here and there, nothing dramatic. We did go out and hire an extra producer. We used to have just one producer on the early show, now we have two." Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism released its annual "State of the Media" findings last week. The one growth area for network affiliate stations was at 4:30 a.m. -- 69 stations had them this year, up from 28 a year earlier. The only other potential growth area, according to the report, was at 7 p.m., although few stations have ventured into that territory yet.

And if earlier is better, why not start at 4 a.m.? At least three independent stations in New York, Indianapolis and St. Louis have, according to Ms. Potter's research, with network affiliates in Nashville and Las Vegas joining the trend.

"I think we'll see how 4:30 goes first," Mr. Goldrick said. "If I talk about [4 a.m.], Jennifer and Todd would practically take me out and beat me." Early to bed, early to rise At WPXI, meterologist Mike LaPoint gets to work by 3 a.m.

"I'm my own writer, producer and editor," he said. "It's a matter of getting everything together, checking the models and maps and making my own forecasts." But with a 7-year-old son and twin toddler daughters, he said, he can be home to meet the school bus, work on homework and just be with his wife, Jenny, and their children. Generally, unless there is a Penguins game to tempt him, he tries to turn in shortly after the kids.

WTAE weekend morning anchor Janelle Hall aims to be in the Wilkinsburg studio by 3 a.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when she is a reporter for the morning and noon newscasts.

"A lot of people think it's insane to get up at 2 in the morning and be OK with it, but I like to have the rest of the day to be in 'Mum mode,' " said Ms. Hall, who has an 18-month-old son, Austin.

Her husband, Casey, works a more conventional 9-to-5 day as a salesman. There aren't, of course, many late nights in the household. Even so, during the day it helps for Ms. Hall to take a nap when Austin begins to nod off.

Time is turned around for the Abney family, too. Ms. Abney, and her husband Clay, are do-it-yourselfers who have spent more than a year renovating their home.

One of the best ideas has to be the black-out panels Ms. Abney sewed into the curtains of their master bedroom. With the advent of daylight saving time, she can pretend most of Pittsburgh isn't still awake when she goes to bed at 8.

Mr. Abney is an online and sports journalist who works in coverage and on the advertising end of adventure and endurance racing events. His office is at home, which makes him available for driving his wife to work on particularly harrowing snow days -- they're both natives of the South and still marvel at the havoc ice can wreak on the roads.

Those who help deliver the news, whether from an anchor desk, control room or out standing by a snowy roadside before dawn, put a high priority on nap time.

"Anyone who tells you they are not sleep-deprived is skirting the truth," said Mr. McDermott, laughing.

"But it's just part of the job. Every job has its [downside] ... but even on the worst day, I say it's a great job." And so the day begins With alarms set to ring at 2 a.m. -- or earlier -- the day begins before some people's bedtimes.

On a recent Wednesday, Ms. Abney's wake-up routine starts with the first of many diet cherry colas -- neither she nor her husband are coffee people -- and cereal bars. With a pair of Jack Russell terriers and a cat, Bella, wide awake for the sendoff, she's out the door by 2:50.

A 10-minute drive to the station is followed by hair and makeup. A rebroadcast of NBC's "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" plays softly in the background on the green room monitor while she ducks into another small room to do her own hair and makeup.

This particular morning is unusual; WPXI is filming promos for later in the spring. After she finishes her newscasts, she will trade a periwinkle-blue jacket and black skirt for a suit of a different color.

"And at some point this morning, I have to put on my big-girl shoes," she says, kicking up a sneakered foot. Even after she and her co-anchor finish the WPXI newscasts at 7, they continue the station's live coverage for another hour on PCNC and do cut-ins during "Today." By 3:45, the vast newsroom feels empty, save for her on-air colleagues and a handful of producers, editors and technical personnel. Sitting at her desk she goes over her scripts and checks news online.

Somewhere, morning traffic reporter Trisha Pittman has brewed a pot of gourmet coffee. The place smells like early morning, even if it's still pitch black outside.

By 4:15, it's on to the studio, with its shiny black floors and high black ceilings. Ten minutes later, the robotic cameras glide into place and the anchors cut in with a few quick news teases.

There is a whole lot of perkiness on camera for 4:26 a.m.

As the minutes tick down, Mr. McDermott stretches enthusiastically and says, "Come on, everybody!" Ms. Abney just laughs and rolls her eyes: "He gets the special coffee in the morning." But then it's 4:29, the tone becomes serious, and another news cycle begins.

Locally, it's a fairly slow news day, but overseas dramatic footage of Japanese citizens fleeing the tsunami and an airplane on fire at a show trumping the usual car accidents and fires.

The sad story of a Fox Chapel student who died in a ski accident has reporter Brandon Hudson standing outside the entrance to the high school, but of course, no students or staff are there yet. There is a report on an alleged Peeping Tom's arrest at a tanning studio, another about a glass plant in Shaler closing after a fire.

"When I was in New York doing the 5 a.m., they wanted more 'happy talk' -- talk about what I had for dinner last night, kind of like 'Regis & Kelly,' " Mr. McDermott said.

What Pittsburghers want is basic traffic and weather, and they want it delivered by a familiar face.

"Our goal," Ms. Abney said, "is when you leave your house, we've told you a little bit of everything you need to know." Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478.

To see more of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.post-gazette.com. Copyright (c) 2011, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For more information about the content services offered by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services (MCT), visit www.mctinfoservices.com.

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