Is 4:30 a.m. becoming the new prime time for news?
Before Bruce Wolf turned himself into a junior Rush Limbaugh on conservative talk radio, he hosted a freewheeling and quirky little half-hour news program at 4:30 a.m. weekdays on NBC-owned WMAQ-Channel 5. I believe I watched every installment of the show -- either live or on tape.
"I think 4:30 in the morning is a little too prime time-ish for me," Wolf sarcastically told me when plans for the show were announced in late 2006. "What I was really looking for was a once-a-year show to be aired on the night that Daylight Saving Time ends in that one extra hour that you get at 2 in the morning." Although Wolf's "Barely Today" barely lasted five months before it was canceled due to poor ratings (and replaced by an earlier start for Channel 5's regular newscast), it clearly pointed the way to the future.
Now, a little more than three years later, another station is about to follow Channel 5 in starting its weekday morning news block at 4:30 a.m. And suddenly, that time slot doesn't seem so ungodly early after all.
Beginning Aug. 16, Tribune Co.-owned WGN-Channel 9 will start its "WGN Morning News" 30 minutes earlier -- at 4:30 a.m. The additional half-hour will be anchored by Val Warner, who joined the station in 2005 and doubles as morning traffic reporter and substitute anchor. Accompanying Warner on the show will be weatherman Paul Konrad. Larry Potash and Robin Baumgarten will continue to anchor from 5 to 9 a.m.‚ In a statement announcing the move Friday, Greg Caputo, news director of WGN, said:
"It's been six years since we've last expanded 'WGN Morning News.' Commuters are hitting the roads earlier and viewers are getting and consuming their news via many sources.‚ We continue to evolve with our audience and offer viewers a first look at the day's news, weather, traffic and sports."
Whether viewers are actually clamoring for more news before sunrise is beside the point. Station bosses and their consultants know that an earlier start time increases the chances of capturing and retaining an audience for the duration of the news block. It's only a matter of time, as Chicago media blogger Terence Henderson predicted last April, before all the other local stations follow suit.
Channel 9's additional half-hour of news will replace a second run of "The Andy Griffith Show," which continues on the station at 4 a.m.‚ (Reruns of the classic sitcom also air in the market at 8 p.m. weeknights on Me-TV.)