ABC News Now, the digital 24-hour news channel birthed for the presidential election, will become a permanent channel in the spring. But starting Jan. 30, the service will “take a breather” from TV, says ABC News President David Westin. The division will spend the next few months hiring staff, hammering out distribution deals and strengthening programming. While ABC News Now will vanish from TV, it is still available via the Internet and wireless devices.
The network will invest $7 million to $10 million to beef up Now’s technical infrastructure, on-air look and personnel. Mike Clemente will head up the effort as executive producer, moving from his senior broadcast producer role at 20/20.
“We proved the success of the editorial product,” says Westin. “I’m convinced this service is the future. It’s just a question of what is the best distribution model.”
The TV service was a simulcast of the ABC News Now broadband and wireless product, fulfilling Westin’s edict of “ABC News anytime, anywhere.” Launched as an over-the-air digital service last summer, ABC News Now gave the network an outlet for gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Republican and Democratic political conventions. It was available on 70 affiliates as a digital broadcast service and to 6.5 million digital cable subscribers on Time Warner, Comcast, Cox, Adelphia and other systems.
The experiment was expected to end on Election Day, but the network extended it through the inauguration. Distribution announcements are expected in the next few months as the company begins negotiations with cable and satellite distributors.
The goal isn’t simply a cable channel, says Westin. He wants to reach viewers throughout the day “by cellphone, from your PC, your Blackberry or devices that haven’t even been invented yet,” he explains. “It’s about being platform-agnostic. The viewers know they can get us however they want.”
Tom Wolzein, a senior media analyst for Sanford C. Bernstein & Co, agrees that the future is in decoupling content from a specific medium. He’s just not sure it spells success today.
Clearly, “anytime, anywhere” is the next trend, Wolzein says of the multiple-platform model. “If ABC has a budget that allows some staying power, their concept just might work.”
A big consideration is staff. Westin says Clemente was one of several ABC News employees borrowed from within the organization to help the fledgling effort.
Future staffers will be a mix of internal ABC employees who will shift over to ABC News Now permanently, and outside freelancers. Any staffer who comes from another ABC show will be replaced, adds Westin.
ABC News Now will be a different kind of service from what’s traditionally found on cable news, he says. The network relies on live coverage, like Senate hearings and Washington press conferences. Its focus is on the story, not “on sets and lighting.”