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Morning in America: It’s All About the Local News

It used to be that the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts had all the clout. Now it’s the early morning shows that draw the coveted viewership and offer the most promotional bang for the buck

Bob Dylan told us, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

Maybe these days we do.

Last week, what read like a minor announcement probably slipped by most people. But in terms of the Hollywood publicity machine and how to make it work for you – how to land the best exposure and make your efforts pay off – it was significant.

The CBS TV station duopoly in Los Angeles announced that the weatherman on their early morning newscasts (starting at the ungodly hour of 5 a.m.) was promoted to “chief meteorologist.” In local TV-speak, the title – much like “sports director” or “senior anchor” – means the person holds the most important position on that particular newsroom beat.

But here’s what you might’ve missed: The promotion didn’t include an assignment change to the traditionally more important 6 p.m. or 11 p.m. evening newscasts. Simply put, he’s staying put.

That’s because in the local TV news business these days, the 6 and 11 shows have very little clout. The viewers … and the dollars following them … are now in the morning.

Over the last few years, while we watched newspapers shrink and magazines fold, local stations grew their newscasts. But almost exclusively in the early morning. Stations airing a half-hour of local news before “Today” or “Good Morning America” began advancing their start times to 6 a.m., then 5. Last spring, KNBC in L.A. launched a 4:30 a.m. newscast. And last week, New York’s WPIX upped the ante, announcing a 4 a.m. show beginning in September.

There are numerous reasons behind these moves. The one most often spun by station managers is that lifestyles have changed: They’ll cite market research showing people are waking earlier for longer commutes and also building in time for pre-work routines such as the gym. And they have research showing these people want fresh news and information.

The more important reason is that these early risers are advertisers’ darlings. They’re usually employed, interested in what’s going on in the world, younger than news’ aging audiences and have some money to spend – whether at McDonald’s, the home decorating store or the cineplex. That’s why you’ll see big-brand advertisers all over the 5 a.m. broadcasts, while bail bondsmen and truck-driving training commercials populate 5 p.m. 

And local news remains one of the few playing fields where stations can still compete with the cable networks.

But aside from fewer AB Rocket and EZ Jet infomercials on those nights when you have insomnia, what does this all this mean for those in the entertainment industry with projects to promote?
A lot.

If you’ve got a film, TV series, digital concept or music release aimed at mainstream audiences, you really want those early morning local news viewers. (If you’re promoting a project aimed squarely at women, the midday newscasts catering to stay-at-home moms are an equally good fit. If you’re chasing teens, college kids or recent grads and your publicist books you on local TV news, change publicists.)

Forget what you were taught about the 6 and 11 shows being the so-called newscasts of record. The morning shows stole that title long ago. In fact, stations once recycled 4 or 5 p.m. news segments on the next day’s early morning shows as filler; nowadays, it’s the reverse.

And just as the time period is different, so is the nature of the promotional opportunity it offers.

The old local TV entertainment segment, running around 5:40 p.m., was usually a fully produced feature loaded with clips and soundbites, often taped on location at the artist’s convenience.

Not so much anymore.

Now stations want the actor, musician or producer appearing live during the morning show: physically in-studio if possible, otherwise via satellite. The station’s booker will explain it’s because these shows are more casual, conversational and unpredictable and the live factor suits it. He won’t admit that with budget cutbacks, stations have nixed the crews and editing time required to produce taped features.

So if you need local market publicity, you can no longer just sit in your bed in torn sweats while rolling morning drive radio interviews. Here’s what’s important now:

Show up live rather than tape ahead. Even if you’re on satellite from the Westside, viewers will pick up a noticeable difference in your interplay with the on-air anchors and your effectiveness selling yourself. You might even get a second segment of airtime…

…Which means doing homework. You’ll need to know more than that well-rehearsed publicity pitch and how to set up your clip. You could easily be asked your opinions about celebrity train wrecks making news at the moment, sports trades, even – God forbid – whether you’re Team Edward or Team Jacob. Some guests have been recruited on the spot to handle sports or weather duties. Have lots of caffeine in you.

Take advantage of additional publicity ops they might offer. Many stations want to knock out a few extra interview questions for online-only segments they use to drive viewers to their websites. If you’re in-studio, you’ll inevitably be asked to pose for fan pictures with the anchors, which they’ll circulate on their websites, Facebook and Twitter pages. Just don’t cringe thinking Cronkite is spinning in his grave.

Finally, have fun. As we all cope with a highly fragmented information universe along with dwindling numbers of journalists and outlets, it’s nice to score a big chunk of exposure on major local media in its most valuable time period. And for people with smaller projects willing to show up in-studio awake and chatty at 5:30 a.m., you might get a solid PR placement.

In a strange way, these early morning shows are a kind of throwback to the Dave Garroway-eque early days of television. They run on for hours, hosted by anchors working hard to be accepted as your friends or family. And they’ve got the stations’ strongest resources behind them.

But if anyone walks out with a chimp in a bowtie, run. 

Flackback will explore the art and artifice of entertainment PR.  The author has 25 years' corporate experience and has finessed everything from a celebrity's drunken surprise marriage to his best friend's 16-year-old daughter to a 20-minute advance warning that her company's president was being fired. And she sees little difference between these scenarios.  She's chosen candor over a byline.