The Battle For Late- Night News Junkies
Networks are duking it out with inde- pendents and each other for the overnight market.
By Lou Prato
Lou Prato is a former radio and television news director and a broadcast journalism professor at Penn State University.
While most people are sleeping, the most competitive and bizarre fight ever for a television news audience is raging across America.
Between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m., four networks, one syndicated news service and many local affiliates and independent stations are – or soon will be – programming up to five hours of news.
NBC and ABC affiliates now airing overnight news delivered by their networks integrate the product with local newscasts. Although a format has not been decided, many CBS affiliates are expected to do the same when CBS starts its overnight service later this year.
Meanwhile, many of those network and dozens of independent stations also take overnight feeds from CNN Headline News or the syndicated All News Channel (ANC).
Of course, not every station is running news overnight. And even those that do may not air it for the entire five morning hours. But the competition has intensified since NBC launched "NBC News Nightside" last November and ABC started "World News Now" in January.
Providing news overnight seems to make little sense financially, especially for the networks, since the costs are high and the potential profits limited. After start-up expenses, NBC and ABC expect to lose $2 million or more a year. The number of available viewers is minuscule, ranging from about 17 percent of the U.S. households watching television at 1 a.m. to 6.4 percent of those households watching at 5 a.m. Even that paltry audience has preferred vintage movies and reruns of cancelled programs.
In this era of fragmented audiences, severe cost-cutting and diminishing revenues, outsiders may question the sanity of network executives who conceived the overnight news services.
The networks don't have much choice, primarily because the relationships with their affiliates – which demand overnight programming – are in jeopardy. But, more significantly, the networks' role as a disseminator of news is being threatened by CNN, ANC, other cable services and the telephone industry.
"I see this as an effort to try to provide better service to their affiliates but also to expand their domain," says Jim Willi, executive vice president of Audience Research & Development, a news consulting company. "The nets have wanted to do an hour of [evening] news for years but the local stations resisted. This way they help their affiliates and do more news at the same time. And this enables them to compete with CNN as a full-service organization."
The overnight competition with CNN extends beyond local television. The networks envy CNN's global reach and have been discussing ways to achieve parity. As CNN executives point out, overnight news in the United States is prime time elsewhere.
"The other networks seem to be using this overnight service as an exercise in trying to sustain a long-form 24-hour business," says Jon Petrovich, executive vice president of CNN Headline News. "But is the business there? And will there be resistance from media networks in other countries like England and Japan? Whether this exercise becomes an international venture competitively remains to be seen."
But it's not just the networks competing. Most local stations also promote news as their fundamental programming to attract viewers and advertisers.
The station with the best news image in a market is almost always the most profitable. Although overnight news may not make much money, it will solidify the dominance of some stations and make others more competitive.
In recent years, local stations increasingly have emphasized news overnight. Starting with replays of 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. newscasts, many stations now originate 30- and 60-minute newscasts throughout the night.
As far back as the early 1980s, CNN began exploiting the overnight needs of the local stations. In fact, the networks created programs such as "NBC At Sunrise" and CBS' "Nightwatch" to thwart the interloping CNN. But as the networks resisted affiliate pleas for more comprehensive overnight help, CNN provided it. Today, 130 stations carry CNN Headline News overnight feeds, while another 210 stations subscribe to CNN's news-gathering service, Newsource.
Two years ago, the 24-hour All News Channel entered the fray. ANC is a joint venture between the independent Conus news-gathering operation and Viacom Satellite News Inc. ANC now serves about 30 percent of U.S. TV households in markets ranging from Pittsburgh to Billings, Montana.
In one of the most unusual examples of overnight news, WFLA in Tampa uses three outlets – NBC, CNN and ANC. Throughout the night, the station runs half-hour newscasts from all three services with local, five-minute cut-ins until 6 a.m., when it broadcasts an hour of local news.
But what works in Tampa may not succeed elsewhere. Do viewers everywhere really want so much news? Stay tuned. l###