After Midnight  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 1993

After Midnight   

The wee small hours of the morning are the latest battleground for television news.

By Judy Flander
Judy Flander, a Washington, D.C. based journalist, writes frequently on television news.     


More insomniacs get their news from 'World News Now' than from any other source" is the wry slogan of ABC's early early early morning broadcast.

That's a claim nobody is likely to challenge – we're not talking multitudes of viewers here. Less than 2.5 million people at any given time are watching "World News Now," NBC's "Nightside" or CBS' "Up to the Minute," all of which premiered in the last two years and air weekdays beginning at 2 a.m. Because affiliate stations broadcast all or parts of the shows at varying times, and because stations in the Pacific and Mountain time zones air the shows later than in the East, the networks update their feeds until about 9 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.

Early morning viewers can catch up on the basics – spot news, business, weather, sports – on all three newscasts. Other than that, they differ sharply. "World News Now" is the most entertaining, with repeats of segments from "Nightline" and "PrimeTime Live," humorous features and anchor chitchat. CBS' "Up to the Minute" specializes in four- to 10-minute newsmaker interviews by its anchors, while NBC's "Nightside" consists almost entirely of briefs from around the nation and the world.

CNN and Conus Communications' All News Channel, both of which have network affiliates as clients, also broadcast overnight but attract just a few hundred thousand viewers. And the networks have further competition from local 24-hour cable channels, such as New York 1 News, that now operate in many major cities.

S o, who are these people who stay up all night watching the news?

"A few convicts," offers Troy Roberts, co-anchor of "Up to the Minute." Maybe television producers, he adds. And doctors.

"Lots of nurses and doctors," agrees Shelley Lewis, executive producer of "World News Now." "College students doing all-nighters. People in newsrooms, print as well as television. There's a whole other society up in the dark of night."

"Women up with their kids or nursing babies," suggests ABC's Thalia Assuras. Adds her co-anchor, Boyd Matson, "There is the criminal element – the criminal element who haven't been caught yet." Also, he says, "I have been told by women friends of mine that women experiencing menopause who wake up in the middle of the night" watch.

These informal demographics are based largely on calls and letters from viewers. More sophisticated research has found that most are younger than those who watch dinner-hour newscasts and generally split evenly between men and women.

Eric Braun of Frank N. Magid Associates, an Iowa-based research firm, sees the growth of overnight news as a sign of change for the entire TV news industry. "The Persian Gulf War was when the world tilted," he says. "Many of us began turning on the television the first thing [in the morning]. That's become part of our lifestyle. We want news and information on demand."

W ith their minuscule overnight ratings, why did the networks go to the expense of launching newscasts that they don't expect to make much, if any, money?

The reasons are the same as they were a decade ago when the networks first ventured into overnight broadcasting. But now they're even more important: With so many more places to get programming, the Big Three must keep their affiliates happy.

"There's not a hell of a lot of advertising," says Don Dunphy Jr., vice president of ABC's affiliate news service. "We're doing it because it's important to ABC to program around the clock."

A major stimulus for that was the launch of Cable News Network in the early 1980s. In 1982, Turner Broadcasting President Ted Turner invited all network affiliates to Atlanta and offered to sell them access to his news programming, including "Headline News," a 24-hour broadcast of 30-minute, regularly updated "wheels" of international, national, business, weather and sports news. "It terrified the networks," says Reuven Frank, a former president of NBC News. "They started their own overnight newscasts to keep their affiliates."

CBS responded first that same year with "Nightwatch," a four-hour live broadcast. If you've heard of it at all, it's because until 1990 its anchor was PBS interview maven Charlie Rose. But draconian budget cuts had their effect and the program soon became just two hours long, taped in the afternoons.

ABC's first effort, "The Last Word," anchored by Greg Jackson, foundered in April 1983 after six months.

The groundbreaking newscast was NBC's "Overnight," which debuted in July 1982 with anchors Linda Ellerbee and Lloyd Dobyns (and later Bill Schechner). "Our bosses were asleep [at 1:30 a.m., when the hour-long show aired], so we could really do the kind of news we thought should be on the air," recalls Ellerbee, now president of her own company, Lucky Duck Productions.

"Overnight" was the envy of the other news divisions at NBC and its competitors, particularly the evening newscasts that had long been fighting to expand their 22-minute newshole. And its viewers, while relatively few in number, were fervently loyal. "It was like a club, a club you want to join," says Ellerbee. Such was the show's impact that the Washington Post called it "the most flavorful and distinctive news broadcast on the air."

Led by Executive Producer Herb Dudnick, now a senior producer at ABC's "World News Tonight," the program also pioneered the use of reports supplied by affiliates, ran foreign broadcasts with subtitles, and asked foreign reporters for their perspectives on international affairs.

The broadcast was always a work in progress and viewers were aware of its immediacy. "When the show went on the air, we didn't have the rear end written," says Dobyns, now an author. "We would type like hell during the commercials." He and Ellerbee sat at facing desks piled high with reference books, both wearing glasses. "Hell, we couldn't see the prompter without them," recalls Dobyns, who wore a vest with a shirt and tie, also a departure. And each broadcast ended with a personal commentary by one of its anchors and Ellerbee's and Dobyns' well-known sign-off, "And so it goes."

Yet 17 months after its launch, and despite talk that sponsors were "lining up," the program was dropped. "Some people said it was something I said," jokes Ellerbee. "Others said it was everything I said."

Frank, who is unforgiving about the termination of "Overnight," says he was called in one day "by the money department and told, 'This program does not have and never will have enough ratings to pay its bill.' Our program had a budget that could hardly pay for a good lunch for a top executive."

If local programming executives were upset by the departure of "Overnight," they didn't say much. In those days, cable was still in its infancy and the networks still owned the airwaves – and the ratings.

By 1990, however, the Big Three again were nervous. CNN made a strong showing during the gulf war, and the cable network was having some success recruiting network affiliates to carry its programming. It also launched News Source, a 24-hour video version of the Associated Press, and began providing clients with the right to use CNN video and obtain access to live coverage.

Today, CNN has 350 clients, about 100 of which carry "Headline News" and 260 of which are affiliates of either ABC, CBS or NBC. "You can run news all night long by piggybacking on resources," notes Jill Geisler, news director at Milwaukee's WITI.

CNN airs only one straight news show during the overnight hours, "Worldwide Update," at 2 a.m., followed by "Sports Latenight," "Showbiz Today" and a newscast aimed at students that teachers can tape for later viewing. The network does break in for live updates when breaking news occurs, and the newsroom is always active because of services such as CNN International and News Source. "In the middle of the night," says Ed Turner, executive vice president of newsgathering, "our studio is hot. An anchor is sitting in the chair. News stories are being gathered, packaged and sent out."

CNN says "Headline News" has drawn a steady 0.4 cable rating (about 210,000 households) since the networks launched their early morning shows – the same as it had been for years.

Besides CNN, the networks also challenged Conus' syndicated, 24-hour All News Channel (ANC), beamed via satellite since 1989 from Minneapolis. ANC took off after the gulf crisis. "A couple of months later," says Steve Blum, its director of marketing, "we had about 65 stations and a reach of 39 percent of U.S. television households." After the network overnights began, however, ANC lost 15 stations and dropped to 24 percent coverage.

"We may be egocentric," Blum says, "but we perceived [the network competition] was aimed at us." The channel now has 80 stations carrying it, but many are in smaller markets so its reach has risen only 10 percent.

B y 1989, then-NBC News President Michael Gartner was encountering open hostility at meetings with local news executives. Says Bob Horner, who launched and is now president of NBC News Channel, the network's 24-hour affiliate satellite service based in Charlotte, North Carolina, "It was clear that NBC affiliates were not happy with the level of support they were getting from the network for local news [from other affiliates], pictures, all sorts of services."

Bill Bauman, news director of KCRA in Sacramento and a member of NBC's affiliate advisory board for news, says the "watershed moment between the locals and the network" came during the October 1989 San Francisco earthquake. The network "performed miserably," he says, and was not able to distribute coverage by its San Francisco area affiliates until an hour after the catastrophe. "By the time they got up to snuff, they had no viewers," Bauman says. "People had already found coverage on ABC, CNN and CBS."

Gartner responded by asking Horner to launch the news channel. He did so in January 1991, but the affiliates wanted more. They asked for news programming to fill the early morning hours. In November 1991, "Nightside" premiered; it is now carried at least in part by 150 of NBC's 209 affiliates and pulls a 0.7 rating (about 659,000 households), which lags somewhat behind the 0.9 (about 848,000 households) gained by ABC and CBS with their overnight programs.

The ABC program, "World News Now," which is carried at least in part by 129 of 224 affiliates, premiered in January 1992. It soon earned critical acclaim for its breezy anchors and irreverent features. Ironically, it was modeled on NBC's cancelled "Overnight," right down to the utilitarian attire: Co-anchor Boyd Matson prefers shirtsleeves and both he and Thalia Assuras wear glasses as they lean chummily across a common desk.

Like "Overnight," "World News Now" often uses material supplied by affiliates (during Hurricane Emily, the broadcast went from one station to another, giving viewers a look at local anchors and reporters on the scene) as well as excerpts from foreign news programs with subtitles, old documentaries and newsreels, and just about everything else it can access, including business news from Tokyo. In fact, "World News Now" is so relaxed that it runs its credits over "The World News Polka," written and performed by accordionist Barry Mitchell and festively augmented with a bubble machine:

"It's late at night, you're wide awake and you're not wearing pants, so grab your 'World News Now' mug and everybody dance... Who cares what the networks think or the sponsors, too, and if your neighbors call the cops, here's all you have to do. When they yell, it's half past three, tell them, hey, it's news to me. That's the World News Polka!"

CBS launched "Up to the Minute" – sans polka – in March 1992. WITI is one of 120 CBS affiliates of 200 who air it, although the Milwaukee station also subscribes to CNN. "We even changed the graphics from CBS to CNN when we used it during the election," says Jill Geisler. "Saved our viewers using their remotes."

A lthough all three network overnights use CNN's 30-minute wheel format so affiliates can schedule as many segments as they need, the programs themselves are very different.

Of the three, NBC's "Nightside" used rotating anchors early on, giving it an impersonal tone. It now relies on two anchors, Tom Donovan and Kim Hindrew, on weeknights, and Tom Miller on weekends. The show has also moved to a more sophisticated set with a round, glass-topped table and a backdrop of Charlotte's nighttime skyline.

"Nightside" is a bit formal. The men wear suits. "It is our philosophy that we are the hardest of the three," says Sharon Houston, executive producer of NBC News Channel, which produces the show. "The broadcast was built on the half-hour format, designed to hit specific breaks, to come into it clean." Houston says she hopes to gradually let the show "flow a little more, loosen up the writing a little."

Says Bill Bauman at KCRA, "It is not a great broadcast, not a bad broadcast... 'The Today Show' and Brokaw, it isn't."

Still, the talent is there. Each of the networks' original overnight anchors has been promoted. Sara James, the first "Nightside" anchor, is now an NBC correspondent in New York. ABC's first anchor team split when Lisa McRee moved to anchor a show for women co-produced by ABC for cable's Lifetime channel. She was followed by anchor Aaron Brown, now a New York correspondent for ABC's evening news. "World News Now" Executive Producer David Bohrman is now a top news producer at NBC. And at CBS, original "Nightside" co-anchor Russ Mitchell is a reporter for "Eye to Eye with Connie Chung," while Monica Gayle co-anchors "The CBS Morning News."

Mitchell and Gayle were replaced at "Up to the Minute" by Troy Roberts of New York's WCBS and Sharyl Attkisson, who left CNN. The new anchors are honing their skills doing the program's hallmark extended interviews. They also have other sources to question and reporters and analysts to quiz for context. "I am in a journalistic heaven," says Attkisson. "We had tons of ideas at CNN, but it was difficult to get them implemented." Since arriving at CBS, she says she only has to suggest an interview and the schedulers go to work. Everyone from foreign officials such as Alexander Yakovlev, chief assistant to Mikhail Gorbachev, to entertainers such as actress Winona Ryder have appeared on the program.

"Up to the Minute" often airs long segments of news footage that would have been clipped to only a few seconds on the evening news, such as a discussion with Yasser Arafat about the new peace accord with Israel or the full length of an impromptu interview by Roberts with the daughter of mobster John Gotti after her father's trial. ("The range of wonderment and rage she showed!" recalls Executive Producer Tom Bradshaw. "It was fabulous!") The show also has features such as "This Day in History," one of which included historic footage of then-CBS reporter Daniel Schorr in Moscow describing the 1957 launch of Sputnik. Anchor Ernie Anastos of New York's WCBS appears from time to time with "America's Asking," in which he researches and answers questions from listeners, such as "What does it cost taxpayers to maintain services for former presidents?"

"One thing animates the whole broadcast," says Bradford. "Not cuteness. Not being different for the sake of being different, but getting the news on television as quickly as possible."

Cuteness? Is Bradford taking a swipe at "World News Now?"

While the ABC program includes its share of hard news, it is also loaded with antics and anchor byplay. Recently, when Matson was on vacation, a lifesize cutout was placed in his chair, toward which Assuras occasionally tossed a comment. In recent months, Assuras presented a 45-second intro in French for a story about a cooking competition in Paris and spoke in Klingon to set up a report from a "Star Trek" convention. Both pieces had subtitles. Before a story about how computers may someday be able to read thoughts, she sat in silence while a computerized voice "read" her mind.

If all of the overnight anchors aren't as exuberant as Assuras, they all seem to be having fun. They're young, they're on their way up the ladder, and none of them expect to be working the night shift for long. Since the first wave of overnight anchors has gone on to the big leagues, chances are viewers will be seeing more new faces soon. They don't seem to mind; as anchors have changed, ratings have remained steady.

"The networks are not unlike the grocery store that stays open for 24 hours," says Frank Graham of the Virginia-based consulting firm McHugh & Hoffman. "There's not so much work to be done in the middle of the night, but there are customers." l

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