NBC to launch overnight newscast


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- They've been rehearsing for a week now, shuffling in each night about 9:30 and working -- on lighting, script-reading and a thousand technical things -- until 6:30 in the morning.

The country, or at least the night owls and insomniacs among us, will see the results of all this labor at 2 a.m. Monday, when NBC finally launches its overnight newscast from Charlotte. (Channel 2 in Baltimore will air only 85 minutes of four-hour program, from 3:05 a.m. to:30 a.m.)

"NBC Nightside" will feature anchor Sara James and two others reading news updates and introducing taped reports.

"We want to put out a good quality newscast in the middle of the night," says Ms. James, who will likely lead off the show Monday morning.

Primarily, NBC is interested in using the newscast to cement its partnership with 209 affiliates and go after the late night-early morning TV audience.

Those viewers -- a diverse group that includes retirees, late-shift workers, early-rising business executives and young couples with infants -- have been getting their news from CNN.

"The networks saw this source of revenue going to other companies and have decided to act," says Rich Brown, who writes about TV news for Broadcasting Magazine. "NBC Nightside" is "clearly the first of more to come."

Indeed, ABC has announced a January debut for its overnight newscast from Washington. And CBS News officials have told that network's affiliates it hopes to expand "Nightwatch" -- a late-night, laid-back interview show -- into a hard-news competitor.

What sets NBC apart is that it's taking a more decentralized -- some say cheaper -- approach. Its newscast will originate from Charlotte, not more expensive Washington or New York. And it will heavily rely on reports from network affiliates.

In fact, the affiliates urged NBC to launch the overnight show and 145 of them have committed to carrying it. Most of the stories shown on "NBC Nightside" will be compiled by affiliates, says Bob Horner, president of the Charlotte-based NBC News Channel, which also feeds footage to NBC stations around the clock.

"It verges on business insanity to not have a good relationship with local newscasts," says the soft-spoken Mr. Horner, who calls the affiliates "209 close friends of mine."

Mr. Horner says "NBC Nightside" will begin each half-hour segment with a report on breaking news and then go on to weather, sports, features and occasional interviews. "But we feel very strongly that the top priority will be breaking news," he says. "If we have an Oakland fire situation, we'll blow out the weather and sports."

Old hands at NBC News have ridiculed NBC News Channel, saying it is a low-rent operation that lets the network claim it's expanding news while it's really cutting costs to offset drops in advertising revenue.

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