San Francisco Gamble: Earlier TV Prime Time


Kitty Riegel, a part-time worker and full-time spouse and mother, loyally watches the local news on Channel 2--not because she’s “a true believer” in the Fox affiliate’s broadcast, but because it comes on an hour earlier than most other newscasts.

“If I’m going to get the local news, 10 o’clock is when it’s going to be,” said the San Franciscan, 41, who rises at 6:30 a.m. to get her two children off to school and head to her job at an interior design firm. She conks out most nights by 10:30. “The days of hearing ‘The Tonight Show’ theme have been out of our lives for ages.”

Thanks to overextended, early-to-bed baby boomers like Riegel, the NBC and CBS affiliates in San Francisco hope to find a ready audience when they switch today to “early prime time”--broadcasting network sitcoms and dramas from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., rather than 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., and showing the local news at 10.


It is a high-stakes gamble based on a perceived shift in people’s sleep habits toward something more akin to what Ben Franklin had in mind. Viewership, ratings, prestige and millions of advertising dollars hang in the balance.

Heavily promoted on billboards, TV and radio, the new strategy has set off a scramble among independent TV stations to juggle their own schedules in the hopes of derailing the affiliates. And it has sparked a war with program syndicators, who are shifting game and entertainment shows to other stations to avoid having them relegated to graveyard time slots.

The program shift, officials say, reflects some of the broader transformations--such as the proliferation of women in the workplace--that have made microwavable meals and videocassette recorders staples in American households.

“People, particularly working women, want to get control over their time,” said Leo J. Shapiro, who heads a Chicago research and consulting firm. “It used to be that people fit their lives to the TV programming. Now television is fitting the programming to people’s schedules.”

Whether KPIX and KRON, the two San Francisco affiliates making the switch, are guessing right is far from certain. Both conducted extensive research into Bay Area lifestyles. And ample anecdotal evidence suggests that lifestyles have changed, particularly for the baby-boomer set--a key target for advertisers.

Ask just about anyone who has moseyed into parenthood or middle age the last few years, and a familiar pattern emerges. Child care obligations, stressful jobs, housework, errands and longer commutes have sapped energy levels. Late-night news--and even favorite TV series--are getting short shrift.

Meanwhile, there is no comparable population bulge of night owls moving up to take the place of baby boomers.

All that, the stations say, combines to make earlier nighttime news programs--key money makers--more attractive.

To listen to executives at KPIX and KRON, it would seem that viewers have been leading the charge for early prime time. But some television industry observers scoffingly point out that the change has perhaps more to do with television’s sagging bottom line.

Stations nationwide have been squeezed in recent years by rising program costs, eroding audiences and weak advertising demand as cable and other news and entertainment alternatives have fragmented the market. News shows at 11 p.m., in particular, have seen a sharp drop in viewers. Profits have plummeted.

“If you go back to the early 1950s, when the (prime-time) schedule was established, it’s obvious that lifestyles have changed enormously,” said Harry Fuller, news director at KPIX. “But we’re a business. Imagine this: I’m running a store. At another location we could get more customers. We just moved our store.”

If KPIX, a CBS affiliate owned by Westinghouse Broadcasting Co., and KRON, an NBC affiliate owned by the company that publishes the San Francisco Chronicle, can expand the audiences for their local newscasts, they can charge more for commercial time. Moreover, since the news is local programming, the stations won’t have to share the revenues with the network.

But the new scheduling has potential downsides. At an NBC station in Sacramento, older viewers have resisted an early prime-time schedule that began last fall. Parents in the Bay Area worry that, with the programming schedule moved up an hour, their children will be exposed to some of the rough-and-tumble violence and risque humor that characterize programs now shown at 10 p.m.

Perhaps the biggest drawback to the plan is that viewers tend to be a habitual lot disturbed by ruffled routines.

Amy McCombs, KRON’s president and general manager, acknowledges that the station is gearing up to hear from irate viewers. A toll-free line installed several days ago has already drawn more than 500 calls.

No one, meanwhile, is forecasting that the switch will spread to Los Angeles soon, partly because, television executives say, people behave differently there. Also, the networks own the affiliates in Los Angeles and are opposed to any prime-time shift.

Then again, the Midwest and Rocky Mountain regions have been on this “early” entertainment schedule since the heyday of radio, with great success.

For Bay Area viewers, early prime time will probably mean fewer evening game and tabloid shows and, at least for now, expanded, hourlong local news programs at 10 o’clock, like the one that has been a hit on KTVU, the Fox affiliate in Oakland.

For the stations, it could mean at least short-term declines in viewership and, therefore, advertising revenues--a daunting prospect given the broadcasting industry’s depressed state.

Stanley Shell, a San Francisco resident who gets to his job at the Pacific Stock Exchange by 6:30 a.m., figures that early prime time will result in some changes in his family’s routine.

“(We) may have to eat dinner a little earlier,” said Shell, 46. To avoid arguments over programs that might not be suitable for his children, 8 and 15, he imagines that “we just won’t watch (those).”

KGO, the ABC affiliate in San Francisco, plans to stick with the current schedule. John Moczulski, director of program services, said there will still be an audience for the station’s 11 p.m. news. “We’re paired with ‘Nightline,’ ” he said. “That gives people a strong hour of local and national news.”

During several years of lobbying for the switch, KRON has encountered stiff resistance from network executives in New York. It won approval from the network last month for a 16-month trial run only after rival KPIX said it would make the move.

Last September, NBC gave the go-ahead to its Sacramento affiliate, KCRA, for an eight-month test period. Results have been mixed. Older viewers have resisted the shift, said Jon Kelly, a partner in Kelly Broadcasting, KCRA’s owner. But Kelly says he is determined to make it work.

Testing the concept in two markets, said Pier Mapes, president of the NBC network in New York, “makes a great deal of sense.” He noted, however, that “both stations are taking a substantial risk” by agreeing to absorb advertising losses should the changes fare poorly.

KRON has one especially knotty problem: How to deal with its popular veteran, “The Tonight Show.” The station wants to offer an hourlong newscast and air the talk show at 11. But the NBC network would prefer 10:35, an hour earlier than the current time.

Comedian Jay Leno, who in May will succeed Johnny Carson as “Tonight Show” host, can’t understand why KRON would jeopardize the show’s ratings.

“Talk about shootin’ yourself in the foot,” Leno said.

All the station executives huffing and puffing over what they consider to be a monumental shift would do well to get some perspective from Melanie Marks, a San Francisco insurance agent. Early prime won’t affect her, she said, because all she watches is the Fox station’s 10 p.m. news and “Star Trek.”

Frankly, Marks said, “I don’t understand all the hoopla.”

Times staff writer John Lippman in Los Angeles and researcher Norma Kaufman in San Francisco contributed to this story.

The Zonk Zone

Most Californians are asleep when the 11 p.m. news starts, according to research by John P. Robinson, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland who directs the Americans’ Use of Time Project. By moving the prime-time TV schedule to 7 to 10 p.m., the CBS and NBC affiliates in the Bay Area hope to garner more viewership--and advertising dollars--for their late newscasts.

Percentage of California population, 18 and older, asleep at given hours

7 p.m. 8 p.m. 9 p.m. 10 p.m. 11 p.m. Midnight All of California 1% 3% 10% 34% 59% 84% Los Angeles Area 1% 2% 9% 32% 55% 84% Bay Area 1% 2% 7% 29% 59% 82% Rest of California 2% 6% 13% 39% 64% 85%

Source: Americans’ Use of Time Project, Department of Sociology, University of Maryland