Morning TV teams feed our need for news
By Rex Rutkoski
Published: Saturday, June 22, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Buzzing, ringing, jangling and other insistent noises pierce the most sacred part of the night with unwelcome assaults on sleep.
Starting at 2 a.m., hands reach out to quiet, if only briefly, that harsh summons from bedside alarm clocks.
Those whose job it is to help Pittsburgh television viewers wake up and be eased gently into a new day know they, too, must give in to their own rude awakenings.
Monday through Friday, the early-morning TV teams hit the floor and the shower, hurry into their clothes, gulp their caffeinated beverages and make the lonely drive to their studios, arriving at unholy hours that range from 3 a.m. to as “late” as 4 a.m. and begin preparing their newscasts.
At 4:30 a.m., the “On Air” sign flashes, and they welcome us to their world.
“Mornings are quickly becoming the time when most people get their news, weather and traffic,” says Demetrius Ivory, meteorologist for WTAE Channel 4 Action News This Morning. Ivory says people in the industry once offered him condolences when he told them what time slot he was on the air.
“Nowadays, it's referred to with envy from other meteorologists that I know,” he says. “To be the forecaster who is there when someone plans their day is not something that I take lightly.”
We want news whenever we are in the mood to get it, “which is all the time,” says Robert Thompson, professor of media and culture and director of the Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York state.
And that mood includes 4:30 a.m., when Pittsburgh television stations and those in many markets across the nation begin their local news broadcasts.
“One of the times we want local news is when we are headed out to that local environment in the morning,” says Thompson, author of six books, including “Television's Second Golden Age.”
“That really practical information, including traffic, weather and sometimes local sports scores, is something local news delivers and which the networks can't give,” he says.
Ratings have increased locally in the mornings across the industry because of increased programming, Thompson says. Local stations are now accommodating and recognizing the fact that there is a small but substantial audience operational even at 4:30 a.m. “and they will turn their TV on if something is there.”
He cites one study reporting that in 1995, 8 percent of TV households were on at 4:30 a.m., and that figure had doubled to 16 percent by 2010.
It is not just about a revenue advantage in the early hours for a station, Thompson says.
“In many cases, if people turn on the TV and start watching your local broadcast at 4:30, the television may still be on at 9 a.m. on the same channel,” Thompson says.
“It's definitely the most difficult shift on television,” Ivory says. “We are expected to perform at the same level as dayside and evening people with managers at home sleeping, a smaller crew and longer show, sources who can't be reached at that hour, battling lack of sleep and serving a high viewership.”
Jennifer Abney, an anchor for WPXI's Channel 11 Morning News, is philosophical about it.
“This shift just starts really early, but I am home after lunch every day, so that is the nice part,” she says. “I would prefer to get up early for a job I love than sleep in for a job I don't.”
WPXI anchor Joe Arena says he has become more aware that “what we do in the morning is a big help to a lot of people.”
Sarah Arbogast, traffic reporter for KDKA, says: “There's something to be said for accomplishing quite a bit before 9 a.m.”
It's also fun, she says. The moments that make it all worthwhile, from the satisfaction of delivering a solid report to receiving a warm letter from a viewer, happen more often than some may think, she says.
WPXI traffic anchor Trisha Pittman agrees. “On days when we have severe weather, major roads closed and huge construction projects, I feel like I honestly helped make someone's day better by getting them out of a literal jam,” she says.
Kevin Benson, Severe Weather Team 11 meteorologist for WPXI, has always enjoyed doing a “wake up show,” whether it was in his early days on morning radio or in his long tenure at Channel 11. In radio, he says, he could “just roll out of bed and throw on some clothes and head to the studio.” Concerns about attire and appearance are more time consuming in television, he says, even more so for women.
“We're no different from other parents who go to work extra sleepy on certain days,” says Janelle Hall, traffic and breaking-news anchor on WTAE, one of three mothers (including anchors Kelly Frey and Michelle Wright) on the station's morning team. “We are all parents happily trying to find that balance between work and home.”
Wright believes that, for parents, the advantages of the early shift are “huge.” “I'm home before my kids get home from school, and that makes any lack of sleep totally worth it,” she says. “Working the morning show is great.”
“If I seem a little sleep deprived at times, I am,” admits Frey, who considers herself fortunate if she gets five hours of sleep a night. Often, even those few hours aren't sound. Her son Bennett, 31⁄2, requires extensive therapy every day and often needs attention during the night.
“It's amazing what the body will allow you to do when you need to. Those days are simply mind over matter,” she says.
Frey is grateful that she can still work and take care of her children. “I figure I'll sleep again when the kids are older,” she says.
She knows that viewers face their own challenges.
“Morning TV is a very cozy, hectic time with trying to get children ready for school and to leave for work,” Frey says. “We hope that we can be a part of that personal family routine.”
The men and women of morning television are some of the unsung heroes of the newsroom, says one Pittsburgh news director.
“It's an important shift with a lot of people watching. They do great work and do it all at off-hours,” says Mike Oliveira of WPXI.
Every shift in television has its unique challenges, but the hours in the morning add a layer of difficulty, he says.
“It can be relatively quiet overnight, and it can be difficult to reach sources or confirm information,” Oliveira says.
People expect stations to deliver local content on every platform, including smartphones, tablets and television, at all hours, especially when they wake up, he says. “It's all important: breaking news, overnight news, weather, traffic.”
Pittsburgh has always been a “shift town,” says Ray Carter, vice president and general manager of WPXI, with plenty of people awake at nontraditional times. “I don't know that the demand for more news was created recently,” he says. “I just think we began to recognize it and address it.”
When hiring for the morning newscast, Oliveira says he looks for someone “who isn't afraid of the hours.”
It is important to have the enthusiasm and realization to know that the work “makes a huge difference to hundreds of thousands of people and how they start the day,” says KDKA news director Anne Linaberger.
Justin Antoniotti, WTAE news director, says he looks for someone who viewers will naturally want to wake up to every morning.
“The ideal person will have just the right mix of energy and enthusiasm,” he says, “without being over-the-top excited when it's 5 in the morning.”
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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