Will early to bed, early to rise, make TV-station owners wealthy and wise? We're about to find out. Challenging one of the fundamental tenets of American life, that prime time runs from 8 to 11 p.m. in the East and West, a West Coast station is trying to change the traditional network definition of prime-time hours, arguing that a fundamental shift in life-style has resulted in audiences going to bed earlier and rising earlier. ''My viewers want their news at 10 p.m. and I'm going to give it to them,'' says Jon Kelly, partner in Kelly Broadcasting Co., which owns NBC affiliate KCRA-TV in Sacramento, Calif.
With NBC's consent, the station has petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to start prime-time programming at 7 p.m. rather than 8 p.m. The network also will let KCRA start The Tonight Show at 10:35 p.m., an hour earlier than usual. This way, says Kelly, KCRA not only serves its viewers but moves its local newscasts to the more profitable, viewer-rich 10 p.m. time slot. If KCRA's petition is approved, the eight-month test could start as early as Sept. 16.
Kelly thinks the change in viewing habits isn't just a West Coast phenomenon. ''The American people are more conscious of diet and health today,'' he says. ''Most households are dual-income and they have to get to sleep.'' He notes that in the Midwest and Mountain zones, prime time has always been 7 to 10 p.m. with no adverse effects on ratings. ''The networks are still looking at this through 30-year-old eyes,'' he insists. And hedging their bets like wizened poker players. If ratings drop during the test, KCRA will have to take a cut in NBC compensation.