Alessandra Stanley may have opined on early morning news last week, but I am taking it one step earlier.
I’ve been staying up quite late recently, what with my lack of formal obligations that would otherwise habitually begin at 9am. It’s been productive actually. Quiet, calm, few distractions, save the cataclysmic electrical storm we’ve been punished with on a near-daily basis ’round these parts. Some nights I haven’t hit the hay until 3, 4, even 5am. (Case in point: this writing.)
Most of those nights I take in the news before I fall asleep. What news could be on at these “darkest before the dawn” hands of the clock? Well believe it or not, the Big Three (how antiquated does that sound?) broadcast networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC (sorry CW, maybe next year), actually produce live national newscasts in the still of the night.
And they are arguably the best news on all of television.
They’re the way the news used to be: straightforward, not abrasively loud or busy, and not swapping souped-up graphics for reporting.
For a decade, perhaps two or three, purists have been mourning the demise of hard news. I suppose with the ultimate hard newsman Walter Cronkite’s passing, it’s apropos to reflect with these shows.
Traditionally hard news is characterized by the intersection of two independent attributes: seriousness and timeliness. It “concerns specific events and is strictly factual.” This is opposed to soft news or infotainment, such as, well, most news today. But especially incessant guessing games on Michael Jackson’s death and the jacked nature of Michelle Obama’s arms.
With these overnight programs you get a reasonable compromise of what you might call “modern hard news.”
For good or ill, we’re not going back to Cronkite: it’s considered too dry in an environment with so many channels and options. Realistically, shows need to attract some viewers. Remember, back then there were only a few competitors to go up against.
These shows are not perfect but you’d be hard-pressed to beat them. NBC’s option is Early Today at 4:30am, which last month became the first of these shows to air in HD. CBS’s Up to the Minute is the most buttoned up of the three and is longer, airing from 3:30am to 5am depending on your market. (It airs in half-hour chunks that refresh the headlines.)
Not for nothing, and I may be outdated here, but these shows actually get better ratings than some higher-rated shows on cable news. This is of course because they are on broadcast networks with wider exposure. Still, advertisers would rather hit up the juicier, affluent demographics during the waking hours than the hodge-podge of insomniacs and werewolves who are up at 4am.
Lest you think these programs are simply filler for the networks. They have become breeding grounds for top-tier stars. Anderson Cooper, Today show stalwart Natalie Morales, and Mika Brzezinski (of Morning Joe and daughter of Zbigniew) all cut their teeth here well after most of us had brushed our teeth. Contessa Brewer (MSNBC daytime), Amy Robach (Today and Weekend Today), and CNN’s previously ubiquitous Aaron Brown also had stints in this phantom zone. (Full and convenient disclosure: I’ve worked on one of these programs.)
I must say that one thing has become abundantly clear to me on these purgatorial nights: ABC’s World News Now is the most entertaining of the graveyard news programs.
Jeremy Hubbard and Vinita Nair (pronounced “Ny-Er” as opposed to the “Who Wears Short Shorts” hair remover) anchor it. They don’t yell into the mic or tease segments too hard; they speak calmly and straight up tell the news, “The way it is.” The show, which airs from 3am to 5am, changes names to America This Morning at 4:30am.
It hopes to inform and entertain but it does not sell out to the level of a Today or Fox & Friends. When they report the top stories, you feel like you are getting the facts, sans slant.
Plus the tone of the show levels with you, conveying, “Yeah, we know you’re up for some bad reason, so we’ll just chill with you until your shift is over or you can get back to stage 4 REM sleep.”
Since it’s on late (or is it early?), it’s palatable for them to be relaxed on-air. There’s absolutely nothing wrong or uncouth about it. Maybe this can start a trend that can expand into the waking hours.
In a nice innovation, the show spends considerable time not at the anchors’ desk, but more casually with the two anchors at their desks. Their cubicle desks. In fact, Jeremy is four feet behind Vinita.
They have fun, but they know how to do the news. They show their personalities, gab a bit about movies and off-beat news in one segment, but that’s de rigueur these days.
The lighthearted, irreverent, and humorous parts are great. And I feel like they’ve got to keep it light. If you’re going to be working on TV at 3:30, a little humor goes a long way towards keeping you (and your audience) awake. Plus it seems we don’t want our newspeople to be wooden and bloodless anymore. Because honestly, who gets up at 4:30am and needs to see the news that is not in finance? The guy who says, “It’s time to make the donuts” (died a few years ago) or some fisherman?
World News Now even has its own fan-inspired theme song, “The World News Polka.” Yes, a polka. It is the definition of niche kitsch. Amazingly, it was first unveiled in the early ‘90s. Now, it’s aired in some different musical arrangement each Friday to close out the week. The lyrics have been played with, but this stanza from the original is gold:
Who cares what the network thinks? Or the sponsors, too?
And if your neighbors call the cops, here’s all you have to do:
When they yell, ‘It’s half past three!’
Tell them, ‘Hey — it’s news to me!’
That’s the World News Polka!
Take a look at the full rendition:
Even with a bit of a cult following, it takes a special humility on their part to know that you’d definitely rather be asleep or in bed with a model than watching this show. But you should.