TV news has mostly been defined by downward trends the past decade. Shrinking audience. Aging audience. Fragmented audience.
But there's been one very bright spot amid the economic and ratings gloom for stations in Baltimore and across the country — the morning news. Mirroring the success of network shows like "The Today Show," and "Good Morning America," local morning news programs are steadily expanding airtime, staff and revenue.
Now, some local morning news shows are bringing in more money than the late newscasts — once the cash cows for stations. And whereas morning on-air teams were once thought of as the third-string behind late and early evening anchor teams, morning hosts and anchors who prove they can attract an audience are among TV's hottest properties.
"Years ago, when we introduced a 5 a.m. news, people couldn't believe it," says Jordan Wertlieb, general manager of WBAL (Channel 11), Baltimore's NBC affiliate and top-rated morning station. "But people are looking for news as soon as they can get it. I still think it is unfair to say morning news is more important than late news, but I do think it's fair to say it's now as important."
And mornings are only going to become more important, says Bob Papper, who studies local TV news for Hofstra University.
"There is absolutely going to be more growth in local morning news," Papper says. "Even when we had a contraction of staff, stations were still expanding morning news — and that's definitely going to continue this year as the economy improves."
(Photo of WBFF's Patrice Harris by Sun photographer Kim Hairston)
This month, WBFF (Channel 45) will expand its morning newscast to 10 a.m. — giving it a block of five hours of locally produced news starting at 5 a.m. each weekday. Only a few years ago, Baltimore's Fox affiliate was running infomercials in the morning.
Buoyed by the success of WBFF's morning news, anchored by Patrice Harris, the overall TV audience from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. weekdays in Baltimore has grown since 2001 by 41 percent in the most important demographic — viewers 18 to 49 years old.
But WBFF is hardly the only station making Baltimore mornings newsier.
Management at WMAR (Channel 2), which added its own 9 a.m. hour of local news in 2008, says it is "having discussions" about expanding in the other direction in the New Year and starting its morning news at 4:30 a.m. instead of 5 a.m. as its three competitors now do at WBFF, WBAL and WJZ.
"It would not be hard for us to go at 4:30 because we have so many people in [the newsroom] already [at that hour]," says Bill Hooper, general manager of the fourth-place station in morning news. "I honestly think all of us [station managers in Baltimore] are kind of staring at each other, waiting for one person to pull the trigger, and then everyone will scramble once that happens."
The 4:30 start is being embraced by stations coast to coast, Papper says: "You could say 2010 has been the year of the 4:30 newscast," he says. "We came into 2010 with maybe 16 stations running news at 4:30 in the morning, and now we have dozens and dozens and dozens."
Not all change is a matter of pure growth, of course. Some involves simply redeploying resources. When WMAR decided to add an hour of news at 9 a.m. in 2008, it found the manpower and money to do so by canceling its noon newscast. Hooper says the change was made to be more in sync with the on-demand, wake-up-and-turn-on-the-computer sensibility of young viewers.
While there appears to be less morning change in the works for WBAL and WJZ, there is a reason for that. The two perennial news rivals were the first to stake their claims to expanded mornings, and they are now the ratings leaders, with WBAL's morning team anchored by Stan Stovall and Mindy Basara in first place from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m.
"In recent years, management as well as traditional news talent have been added to that show," WBAL news director Michelle Butt says, cataloging a long list of jobs and personnel added since she arrived at the station in 2003.
"The philosophy of the newscast changed as well. We are no longer, 'Here's what happened while you were asleep,' or, 'In case you missed it.' This newscast is about what you need to get through the day. As the workday and commutes get longer, viewers need a roadmap to the day. That's what a.m. news is. In the 'old days' — the '90s — the a.m. news was a history lesson. Now, it's more of a 'futurecast.'"
WJZ General Manager Jay Newman says his station has responded in the same way to changing times.
"Viewers' lifestyles have changed dramatically in the last decade, and they now have an increasing need and desire to know the news, traffic and weather when they get up in the morning," Newman says. "And that's why we've responded the last decade by increasing not only the amount of news, but the number of reporters and producers in the field and the newsroom in the morning."
Beyond the anchor team of veterans Don Scott and Marty Bass, WJZ morning regulars include Ron Matz and Andrea Fujii reporting and Sharon Gibala with traffic.
All the stations have amped up well beyond the old days of a morning show host and a producer or two. WBAL's morning team includes Sandra Shaw and Tony Pann on weather, with Sarah Caldwell on traffic and Keith Mills on sports. WMAR's crew includes Justin Birk on weather, while WBFF anchorwoman Harris is joined by Candace Dold (traffic and entertainment), Steve Fertig (weather), Joel D. Smith (reporter) and Megan Gilliland (reporter/anchor).
WJZ, which starts the day in first place, runs mostly neck-and-neck with WBAL during the 5 o'clock hour. From 6 a.m.to 7 a.m., it's a strong second. But the station loses viewers at 7 a.m. when the CBS-owned station begins to air the network's low-rated "The Early Show" until 9 a.m.
This fall, WBFF surged ahead of WJZ in the 7 a.m. hour — and it did so with all local programming, which means station owner Sinclair Broadcast Group gets to keep all the advertising revenue without any network split for the two hours until 9 a.m.
Papper says that kind of downward pull from "The Early Show" is not peculiar to Baltimore.
"'The Early Show' is a huge problem for the CBS stations," Papper says. "'The Early Show' has not had an audience in decades, and it really drags down even good local morning shows."
"We are always looking for ways to improve and be more competitive in a very competitive landscape, and we are excited about the future with our new ["Early Show"] team," CBS News spokesman Jeff Ballabon said in an e-mail to The Baltimore Sun.
While WBAL and WJZ were the first to expand into mornings, no one has embraced it like Bill Fanshawe, general manager of WBFF and WNUV in Baltimore, who has steadily expanded WBFF's news offerings since taking over the station in 2001. WBFF has all-local news all five hours with no national programming.
"One of the reasons we have targeted the mornings and continue to expand is that it has been a healthy 'daypart' in terms of growth," Fanshawe says. "People want to watch the morning news. Years ago, people would wake up in the morning, just hit the radio and get their news that way. Now I think people wake up in the morning and turn on the TV."
And then, their computers. One thing that morning shows at all the stations seem focused on is talking to young viewers on multiple screens.
"We're not a sleepy show," Kate Ansari, executive producer of Fox 45's morning news, said one day recently, standing in the station's main control room at 8:20 a.m. watching a bank of screens that featured Dold and Harris live in the studio next door. The two were tracking celebrity Tweets and rolling their eyes at news of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner marrying a woman 60 years younger than him.
From police and government news, to "Tinseltown on Twitter," when you have five hours, you can do all kinds of news, Papper says. And he thinks that can be a good thing — not just for stations making more money, but viewers getting more information about the communities in which they live.
"What's happening in local morning TV reminds me of what happened with magazine shows like 'PM Magazine' in an earlier era," he says. "Some of what appeared on those local TV magazine-style shows wasn't exactly the heaviest news. But the program also exposed a lot of local organizations to a lot of viewers and put a lot of important issues on the local agenda. Morning news serves that same function today — and there's more on the way."