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Chasing the news, earlier

TV stations join trend to draw viewers, ad dollars, with 4:30 a.m. broadcasts

By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / May 20, 2010

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NEWTON — Wells Avenue is dark and quiet when a wet-haired Mike Nikitas strolls into NECN’s studios with his blazer slung over his shoulder. It’s 3:52 a.m. and he’s just beginning his workday.

For the past month, Nikitas has been waking up earlier — by half an hour — to make his 50-minute commute from Windham, N.H., to NECN where he coanchors the regional network’s new 4:30 a.m. newscast.

Over in Allston, fellow anchors at WBZ-TV (Channel 4), relate to the change in the morning shift. They’re hitting the snooze button more often, climbing out of bed earlier, and gulping extra cups of coffee to be ready for their new 4:30 a.m. newscast — a trend that is catching on in Boston and other TV markets around the country.

“It’s live news, not repeated news,’’ said Nikitas, settling into his desk to prepare the overnight news reports with coanchor Karen Swensen. “It’s what happened while you were sleeping.’’

As stations face year-to-year declines in ratings and ad revenue in late evening news — the most lucrative for ad dollars — TV general managers are turning to the early morning news. The earlier start time is intended to cater to the changing habits of today’s workers, with longer commutes and workdays requiring them to rise earlier, TV specialists say. Nielsen ratings research from last month found that at least 375,000 viewers on average had their televisions on at 4:30 a.m. this past year in Boston.

“Stations are chasing all the viewers that they can get,’’ said Bob Papper, head of the journalism department at Hofstra University, where he studies newsroom trends.

NECN last month became the first Boston station to launch a 4:30 a.m. newscast. Called “First Thing in the Morning,’’ the program features Nikitas, Swensen, and meteorologist Danielle Niles. NECN officials say the newscast has two key goals: make the cable outlet more competitive with other Boston network-affiliated stations and provide viewers with another service.

“We want to be the place you come first for breaking news,’’ said Stacey Marks Bronner, NECN’s new station manager.

Ed Piette, the president and general manager of WBZ, agrees. His station launched its 4:30 a.m. newscast last week. “There is an audience there,’’ Piette said.

Although other Boston stations say they don’t have any immediate plans to extend their newscasts to 4:30 a.m., WBZ and NECN are among at least 16 news stations nationally from New York to Minneapolis that are investing in the early-morning newscast. General managers are reporting ratings gains and a revenue boost. Replacing infomercials and national network morning programs allows the stations to attract more local advertisers.

“As ratings decline, you need more and more spots to meet the ratings demand so this is one way of doing that,’’ said Tracie Manna Chinetti, a media buyer with Blitz Media in Needham, who noted that the spots available in the early morning newscasts are cheaper than those in the evening.

Local station officials wouldn’t comment on their ad rates. But at WBZ, for example, a 30-second spot in prime time can range from $4,000 to $20,000, depending on the programming, while at NECN, a spot could run between $140 and $190, according to some local media buyers and analysts. Overall, a spot in a 4:30 a.m. newscast in Boston can be sold for about $500 depending on the ratings, according to a national TV industry official.

Steve Wasserman, the general manager of WPTV, an NBC affiliate in West Palm Beach, Fla., said his station has seen a 20 percent increase in viewership compared to a year ago since it added the 4:30 a.m. newscast last January.

“There is a viewer demand for morning news, and at the same time, there is a huge advertiser demand for morning news,’’ said Wasserman. “I suspect there are a lot of people getting up at that time.’’

People like Marie Macomber, who owns a construction company with her husband in Tewksbury. She said they’ve been tuning into WBZ’s 4:30 a.m. newscast to find out the latest weather updates before dispatching their workers to designated job sites. “For us, having the local weather 30 minutes earlier is a big thumbs up,’’ she said.

Debbie Holman agrees. The substitute teacher in Merrimack, N.H., gets up at 3:55 a.m. weekdays. She said she’s been enjoying the local TV news and updates at 4:30 a.m. on WBZ.

Viewers aren’t the only ones who get up early: Anchors also have to rise earlier. It’s 4 a.m. one recent weekday and the staff at WBZ is busy reviewing scripts and footage for the upcoming newscast. Anchors David Wade and Paula Ebben have been here since 3:30 a.m.

They rotate in and out of the makeup room as they study the overnight reports. Ebben grabs her notes and rushes down the hall to WBZ 1030 AM to update listeners of “The Steve LeVeille Show’’ on what’s to come on the TV station.

Ebben’s work shift, which ends at 12:30 p.m., allows her more time with her four children when they get home from school. The shift also makes for an easier 15-minute commute.

Wade said he’s had to adjust his routine: getting up a half-hour earlier than before, at 2:30 a.m. Later, at the station, he grabs his 16-ounce Starbucks coffee thermos, tie, and blazer before heading to the anchor desk. Ebben meets him there with her cup of joe. Meteorologist Melissa Mack stands nearby in front of a green screen.

The sun still hasn’t risen.

Johnny Diaz can be reached at jodiaz@globe.com.