The News Also Rises

Good day sunshine

Good day sunshine

I need to laugh, when the sun is out

I got something to laugh about

--"Good Day Sunshine"

by Paul McCartney and John Lennon

KNBC-TV Channel 4 certainly has something to laugh about each morning now that hundreds of thousands of local residents are waking up with the sun to watch anchors Kent Shocknek and Carla Aragon send them out the door with up-to-the-minute weather, traffic and gangland shooting reports.

So many viewers have been turning to KNBC's "Today in L.A." over their cereal and coffee that the station's two chief rivals are both launching early morning newscasts in a belated effort to cash in on that awakening news audience themselves.

KCBS-TV Channel 2 premieres its own version of TV-news-while-you-shave today at 6 a.m., and KABC-TV Channel 7 is tentatively scheduled to begin its own newscast for the bleary-eyed next Monday.

"People are just looking for reassurance that nothing terrible has happened while they were asleep," said Tom Capra, news director at KNBC, speculating on reasons for what he called the "surprising success" of his 6:30 a.m. news program since it debuted in the summer of 1986. "We really didn't know that we would find that big an audience."

"The general deterioration of the commute situation in Los Angeles is forcing people to get started much earlier in order to beat the traffic," said Gene Gleeson, the longtime KABC reporter who will co-anchor the station's morning news with Dana James. "There are more people awake and getting ready for work at that time, and the audience just seems to have an unquenchable desire for news. Whether they just want wallpaper or real information, I don't know, but they're out there."

Ratings for "Today in L.A." have been phenomenal for that time of day. For the first three weeks of this month's ratings sweeps, the newscast averaged a 5 rating (nearly 250,000 local households) and 29% of the available audience, crushing its national news competitors on Channels 2 and 7. The 5 rating rivals what KCBS often gets for its afternoon and late-night newscasts.

And on mornings when the extraordinary occurs--an earthquake or this month's freak snowstorm that closed down freeways all over the Southland--ratings soar even higher. "Today in L.A." scored a 6.8 rating and a 36 share on Feb. 8, the day many local commuters found themselves stuck in the snow.

All those viewers and all that advertising revenue for a newscast that the station is able to produce for pennies.

While he wouldn't divulge specific dollar figures, Capra said that the program requires far less money and resources than any of his other newscasts. The technical crew that produces West Coast spots for NBC's "Today" show also works on the local newscast, and KNBC splits the cost with the network. Shocknek and his news writer were both working the early morning shift anyway to produce local news inserts for the "Today" show.

Channel 4 has added a full-time producer, a co-anchor, a weatherman and has asked two field camera crews to come in early each day just in case some story breaks as the day dawns; nonetheless, Capra said, the newscast has become a big source of revenue that simply didn't exist just a few years ago.

"You can't just throw together a half-hour newscast, but we will be doing it on a shoestring," agreed Erik Sorenson, news director at KCBS, whose new copycat program will be anchored by Jim Moret. "All stations have been looking for smart ways to increase their profit, and this newscast makes a lot of sense financially."

"It's the sincerest form of flattery," Capra said of his rivals' sudden entrance into the early-morning news game. "Once you look at the ratings, I don't see how you can not get into this game. If you can do a newscast at a relatively low cost, then why not?"

"What took them so long?" Shocknek wondered.

Traditionally, few people thought that anyone would want to watch television news--much of it recycled from the night before--while they were brushing their teeth or trying to get the kids dressed for school. But what Shocknek calls KNBC's "all-news radio" approach to TV news proved the skeptics wrong.

"We do have a different kind of audience in the morning," said Carla Aragon, who joined the broadcast in September, 1987. "People are getting ready for their day and they want to know what's going on on the freeways. So we give them several traffic reports. They want to know what to wear, so we give them three weather inserts. And many people up that early were not up for the 11 p.m. news, so we repeat the most important story of the night before."

"Today in L.A." looks like a regular newscast, except that it has little new news. Though the freeways may already be a mess, not much actually happens at 6:30 a.m. The show is fast-paced, all the video is meticulously narrated so that those listening from the shower will not miss anything, and there's the inevitable overnight dead-body count.

The traffic reports come complete with a live picture of radio reporter Paul Johnson and maps to show where things are tied up. And every once in awhile, when it snows or the earth shakes or it's the day after a downtown high-rise fire, the program includes fresh early-morning pictures.

Sportscaster Fred Roggin also pops up with a taped segment of the previous day's sports highlights. Likewise, David Sheehan's film or concert review from the night before is repeated with a new, "good morning" introduction, and Shocknek and Aragon briefly summarize world and national events that have already occurred in other time zones. The half hour concludes with a look ahead at what is scheduled to happen locally later in the day.

KCBS and KABC will offer much the same thing, though Channel 2's Sorenson insisted that his 6 a.m. newscast will not "cover the stabbing of the night." It will include well-known KNX news radio man Bill Keane with traffic and weather updates as well as a Keith Olbermann sports segment.

Channel 7 would prefer to start its newscast at 6:30 a.m., but several sources said that the station is having difficulty convincing ABC to relinquish that half hour. The network apparently wants to keep its national news program, "World News This Morning," as the lead-in to "Good Morning America." That conflict has prevented KABC from officially announcing its plans.

But are Channels 2 and 7 jumping in too late to break up Channel 4's early morning monopoly?

KABC's Gleeson said it doesn't matter who got there first. "A newscast is a newscast," he said. "Ultimately, after you throw all these things in the air like Ping-Pong balls, whoever provides the best information will win."

Capra insisted that he isn't afraid of competing with either station. "We've been here awhile and developed the audience," he said. "They started with us and I think they'll stick with us. We've shown that there is a news audience at that hour, but I wonder if there's enough of an audience for all of us."

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