Cable Gets Into the Act in a Big Way

From CNBC to E!, show biz carves a strong niche

It's a few minutes after the half-hour, which most days means CNN Headline News is covering the release of Britney Spears' new CD or the box office tally for Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
or perhaps the broadcast networks' ratings slump.

Information from the mundane—think Spears' liplock with Madonna—to the more meaningful, like the impact that weak TV ratings are having on the advertising economy, was once largely passed over by cable news networks. But now it's being snapped up as major news by virtually all of them.

"I am not sure why there has been such an increase in it, but I liken it to the fact that, 10 years ago, The Wall Street Journal
didn't report on the upfronts, but now it's considered the bellwether for the economy," noted Shelley Watson, senior vice president and media director at Starcom Worldwide,

But a bigger part of the reason cable has pounced on entertainment news is simply a matter of content: Hundreds of networks need to fill up a day's worth of airtime.

Entertainment and, by extension, celebrity news has a twofold impact that's a bit hard to resist: It drives up ratings and, more important, tends to lure young viewers to a network.

"There is no question that there is a demand for it and that the audience wants it in different forms," said Rolando Santos, executive vice president and general manager of CNN Headline News.

"You can define entertainment very broadly as not just music and movies but as books, magazines and interactive programming. The world in general has entertainment in a broad spectrum all around them."

Of course, news about the entertainment industry and celebrities has spawned more than mere snippets of coverage.

The 24-hour network E! Entertainment Television, for instance, launched in 1990 and now is available in about 81 million homes. While often veering away from pure entertainment news with programming like The Anna Nicole Show, E! continues to focus on pop culture and celebrities. The network has nearly non-stop profiles of the entertainment industry in programs like Celebrities Uncensored
and True Hollywood Story.

The network also has news programs, such as E! News Live, which this month was cut back to a half-hour after being stretched to 60 minutes last year.

Even with that trim, there is no lack of entertainment news on cable TV. CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and Headline News have reporters covering the entertainment industry and turn over at least some of their airtime to it. How much often depends on whether or not a major story—such as the death of a celebrity—is breaking.

But some of the news networks have shows focused solely on entertainment news. The Biz
on CNNfn reports on the advertising and media businesses, with information like TV ratings, CD releases and celebrity interviews. CNN International's The Music Room
highlights recent music releases and performers.

Yet while entertainment news is proliferating, it has always had a place on the cable news networks.

"Before Entertainment Tonight, we had a live show out of Hollywood called People Tonight," said Reese Schonfeld, co-founder and former CEO of CNN. "I still think that was the best idea for an entertainment show because it was today's news tonight."

Still, entertainment coverage is often simply a recap of the day's news. That information—including footage that is sometimes too costly for a single network to acquire—is now easier for networks to get. The media mergers of the past decade have brought a slew of properties under the same corporate umbrella.

NBC-owned MSNBC, for example, has segments twice a day from co-owned syndicated show Access Hollywood.

Time Warner has a stable of properties that makes it easier to spread resources around.

"We at CNN have the benefit of covering [entertainment news] across platforms," said Headline News's Santos. "We have all the CNN products and all the CNN International products and, of course, the synergies with AOL."

Clearly, one of the main reasons cable covers the entertainment industry is to drive up ratings.

There is a good deal of information proving that viewers will seek out celebrities and entertainment news.

"It generates ratings," said Starcom's Watson. "If you put Britney Spears on [a newscast], then people who wouldn't normally watch it start tuning in. It's the old adage: If you build it, they will come."

But ratings are only part of the reason for the explosion of entertainment coverage, according to Schonfeld.

"I don't think [entertainment news] is in there because it's necessarily going to get you ratings, but it is going to make your show lighter and more amusing," he said. "It is also of interest to everybody. There is an old saying, which is 'Everybody has two businesses, their own and show business,' and that is still the case."

Along with E!, MTV gets a lot of credit for bringing celebrities and entertainment news to cable. In its early days, MTV had a lineup of music videos and more recently has built its ratings on celebrity-filled reality shows like The Osbournes
and Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica. But entertainment news has always been part of the network, including the segment 10-to-the-Hour.

Today, cable's entertainment coverage has grown far beyond celebrity updates or movie and music releases. It increasingly includes the industry's business side, whether that is NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker talking about TV ratings on CNBC or financial analysts debating both sides of such issues as pending mergers or the easing of ownership caps on the news networks.

Said Watson, "This is something that has been growing for a long time because I think the average viewer has become more sophisticated."