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CLTV Savors First 15 Years

Cable news pioneer zeroes in on Chicago politics 12/28/2007 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Amidst all the tumult going on at Tribune the last few weeks, a company milestone was almost overlooked: Chicagoland Television, better known around the No. 3 Nielsen market as CLTV, turns 15 on Jan. 1. General Manager Steve Farber will take a moment or two to reflect on the Tribune cable news channel's accomplishments over the years, maybe even sitting still long enough to watch the CLTV:15 Years and Counting special.

But he's more focused on the next few months, which will include a Democratic presidential primary battle between some high-profile local players. “[Barack] Obama is, of course, our senator, and Hillary [Clinton] has roots here as well,” he says. “We're treating their run to the White House as purely a local story.”

The Tribune Co., the newspaper and broadcast giant, hatched CLTV in 1993 to 400,000 local cable homes. These days, it serves more than 1.5 million households, and reaches a wider swath of the population through the revamped, a dedicated YouTube channel and the new video aggregator.

As it turns out, there's certainly no shortage of news at the parent company—in the last few weeks, Tribune Chairman/CEO Dennis FitzSimons stepped down, and Sam Zell, who, along with Tribune employees is buying the company, has finalized a tricky takeover. Farber, who says CLTV is profitable, believes the channel learned long ago to roll with the punches. “We've always been forced to be creative, be nimble, to adapt,” he says. “But there's been no discussion other than us continuing on the course we're on.”

Tribune launched CLTV to expand its newspaper's reach. While CLTV shares content, expertise and weather services with Tribune's CW affiliate WGN, it still has a closer relationship with the paper. Farber says locating the newsroom in the paper's bureau in suburban Oak Brook was considered “radical” at the time. Years later, he says it's been a great fit.

Producing some eight hours of news a day, Farber concedes the 100-person staff was larger a decade ago, with automation making some positions expendable.

In reaching the milestone, CLTV slides into rarified company that includes cable news networks NECN and NY1 News, both of which launched in 1992. NECN founder/president Phil Balboni says financial responsibility, adaptability and a tireless nose for news keep the survivors alive. “My friends didn't think we'd last beyond a year or two, but we try to get better every day,” says Balboni, who extended NECN's reach recently by renegotiating with owner Comcast to broker deals with other cable and telco providers. “Our journey may be 16 years old, but it's by no means over.”

Like NY1 News with transit and NECN with business, CLTV has made politics its bread and butter. Farber says it's top of mind both in the newsroom and in the market. (Legend has it Chicago's “Windy City” sobriquet is a nod to long-winded politicians, not the weather.) “We saw covering Mayor [Richard] Daley as the centerpiece of our coverage in 1993, and it still is today,” says Farber. “Everyone here is involved in covering politics.”

Through the years, CLTV appears to have earned the respect of its broadcast rivals, which include WBBM, WMAQ, WFLD and WLS. Farber says CLTV was the only local outfit to do a 5 a.m. news show when it launched; all the big players are on at that hour now. Some citing competitive reasons, station managers largely declined to speak about CLTV. One said CLTV “enhances competition and helps keep us all focused on delivering the best local coverage possible.”

Farber won't share Nielsen numbers, but says CLTV consistently beats CNN and Fox News Channel on a local household basis.

Dick Haynes, senior VP of research at Frank N. Magid Associates, says CLTV's appeal back in '93 was its 24/7 availability to viewers. (Haynes has conducted market research in the past for CLTV.) Over time, he believes its selling point has shifted to sharper analysis and increased depth. “They still have the unique competency of 24/7 access, but they've moved into the same arena as [the broadcast stations],” he says. “They're a channel viewers can depend on for breaking news.”

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