NEW YORK – Video of dancing, chanting Iraqis in Baghdad suddenly filled the Fox News Channel screen on Wednesday. Looters ran out of government buildings carrying furniture. One man took off his shoe to swat at a poster of Saddam Hussein, and someone else spat at the picture.
It was 4:33 a.m. EDT.
There's no rest from full-time war coverage on the cable news networks. During overnight hours when they normally air reruns, the networks are staying live with updates from Iraq, and it's paying off with insomniac fans: viewership has more than quadrupled.
With the ground war reaching Baghdad, where morning and early afternoon coincide with overnight hours in the United States, significant news is often breaking.
"It's an interesting change," said Mark Lukasiewicz, executive producer in charge of war coverage for NBC News. "At the start of the war, many things were happening at night with the aerial bombing. Now the reverse is true. Now the most interesting developments are happening daytime in Iraq and nighttime for us, which does present some challenges."
This week, it was overnight when news broke of journalists being killed in Baghdad's Palestine Hotel, and gripping pictures first arrived of tanks rolling in the streets and soldiers marching into one of Saddam's military palaces.
On Wednesday, the cable news networks aired pictures of looting and celebrating crowds as quickly as they arrived in their newsrooms. They noted that government minders that normally watch reporters had not shown up for work.
"In large parts of the Iraqi capital, civic authority has melted away," said Fox's Steve Harrigan, reporting from Jordan since Fox News was booted from Iraq.
"These are the pictures that people in the Pentagon have waited to see," said CNN's Chris Plante.
Broadcast networks have also beefed up their overnight staffs. ABC News aired a special report at 1:44 a.m. Monday showing tanks moving into Baghdad.
Both ABC and CBS air overnight news broadcasts. In quieter periods, CBS' "Up to the Minute" and ABC's "World News Now" will repeat significant portions through the night. Frequently since the war began, the programs have been going live throughout, executives said.
Dispensing with a leisurely pace, ABC News has sharpened "World News Now" with frequent updates of headlines from Iraq, said Sharon Newman, executive producer.
It's often the time when reporters embedded with military units call in with stories, said Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president of news coverage for CBS.
The changes are most evident on the full-time news networks. Where once a staff of four or five people provided protection overnight, now MSNBC has 20 people working, said Mark Effron, vice president for live news. A handful of retired officers serving as military analysts had the graveyard shift.
Even some familiar faces show up: Aaron Brown has been working until 2 a.m. EDT on CNN, and Anderson Cooper has relieved him on the overnight, although he wasn't there Wednesday. In fact, CNN switched to a newscast anchored in London early Wednesday, while Fox and MSNBC stayed based in the United States.
It was on the overnight shift that Fox's Geraldo Rivera gave his now-famous report outlining military movements in the sand, for which the Pentagon removed him from Iraq.
Until the Baghdad street video showed up on Wednesday, it was a slow night. All three networks aired live a portion of British foreign secretary Jack Straw's news conference from France. MSNBC's Dana Lewis surprised two misty-eyed members of the 101st Airborne Division with phone hook-ups to their wives back home.
And at 2:52 a.m. EDT, some military reservists interviewed by satellite phone found time to flirt with Fox News' anchor, Laurie Dhue.
"We spend a lot of time watching you," one reservist said. "You have a very pretty smile."
Pre-war, the three news networks had a tiny combined audience of 760,000 people overnight, according to Nielsen Media Research. Last week, there were 3.4 million people watching, Nielsen said.
"The middle of the night is a very busy time," Effron said.