News, All Day and All of The Night
Slowly but surely, 24-hour cable news is catching on.
By Lou Prato
Lou Prato is a former radio and television news director and a broadcast journalism professor at Penn State University.
When cable television's first 24-hour local news channel made its debut on Long Island in December 1986, many in the media believed it would be the first of many such operations across the country.
It was the beginning, all right. But it has taken nearly six years for the concept to catch on.
By early next year, only six 24-hour local news cable channels will be operating in various locales, although more are expected in the mid-1990s.
News 12 Long Island was alone for nearly four years before the launch of Southern California's Orange County News Channel in September 1990. Washington's News Channel 8 started last October and Boston's New England Cable News Channel signed on five months before. A New York City channel should be on the air by fall and one in Chicago before next spring.
Rainbow Programming, the company that started it all on Long Island, is already focusing on other suburban New York communities. The Hearst Corpora- tion, part-owner of New England Cable News, has considered new channels in other regions.
"I said two-and-a-half years ago that California, Texas and Florida were of particular interest," says Phil Balboni, the executive guiding the Hearst cable news strategy. "I'm not implying that we're active there but some people may be. I've also heard rumblings about the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the Midwest besides Chicago."
Rainbow and Hearst are typical of the companies involved with local news channels. Rainbow is a joint venture of NBC and Cablevision Systems Inc.; Hearst's partner in New England is Continental Cablevision. Orange County News Channel is owned by Freedom Newspapers Inc., while Albritton Communications is backing Washington's News Channel 8.
Start-up costs of about $10 million and the recession are two of the factors blamed for the delay since News 12 Long Island debuted. The Washington channel had been planned since 1988 and the New York City enterprise, owned by Time Warner Cable Group, was slated to start up last year.
Chicago had two companies planning 24-hour news channels. But in January one pulled out, citing the poor economy, leaving the Chicago Tribune's ChicagoLand Television.
Once underway, it can cost as much as an additional $10 million annually to operate a channel. News 12 Long Island has yet to show a profit and last year had to trim staff and budget when the area's economy faltered.
Still, all of the companies say they are in the business to stay. Executives at the New England channel project they will break even in three to four years.
Washington may take longer.
"We overestimated our revenue," admits Channel 8 General Manager John Hillis, who also helped start News 12 Long Island.
Some companies hold down costs by paying employees less than rival news operations. However, the money is often enough to attract veterans and ambitious young people. There are usually no unions and many employees handle several jobs.
A number of these new channels also use technologically advanced equipment, such as High-8 field cameras and editing machines, which is less expensive than what network affiliates use. Robotic cameras and computerized work stations are also the norm.
The revenue picture is fuzzy. All-news channels are unsure how much to charge for commercials because traditional broadcast ratings aren't reliable. Audience tune-in can be sporadic.
Unlike network and affiliate newscasts, cable news channels are not aimed at a mass audience but at the viewer who wants to know what's happening in his or her neighborhood. By design, cable news stories are often so narrowly focused and parochial that they only interest a small audience.
But that doesn't take away from the quality of the journalism. News 12 Long Island proved that in January 1990 when its aggressive live coverage of a Colombian airliner crash near Kennedy Airport scooped the New York stations and the networks and won several awards in the process.
Some newscasts are videotaped replays of shows that had aired live earlier in the day, so viewers are not expected to watch for long.
"We're more like radio news in that respect," says Wayne Lynch, news director at D.C.'s News Channel 8. "Watch for 15, 20 or 30 minutes and change channels. Come back a few hours later for another 15 or 20 minutes. We should be rated on a cumulative basis day-to-day rather than on specific day parts."
Currently, the cable news channels are intended to supplement rather than replace other local newscasts. But it's possible that an audience oversaturated with choices may pick cable as its main source for local news.
"Our surveys indicate we are the prime source for TV news for a large percentage of people," says former News Director Norm Fein, now in charge of regional news for Rainbow. "That proves we're doing something right." l###