Keeping up with the competition

In a year with few breaking stories, news services offer affiliates specialized information, digital distribution

In the local TV news business, staying ahead of the competition is crucial. That's why broadcast-network affiliate news services like CBS Newspath are arming stations with stories and information that will bolster their presence.

This month, Newspath brought on board VH1 reporter Rebecca Rankin, who is contributing a music and entertainment report three times a week for the service.

It's all part of an effort to appeal to a younger demographic that is tuning in to CBS' Survivor and Big Brother reality series. "This is the first of many additions we hope to make to the feeds to give our news directors new tools to try and take advantage of this younger demographic that is watching the network for the first time in a long time,'' says Bill Mondora, news director for Newspath.

Like Newspath, the other broadcast network news services-ABC News-One, NBC News Channel, FOX NewsEdge-and independent services such as CNN Newsource and Conus continue to fine-tune their operations in an effort to satisfy local TV stations' enormous appetite for live news and to help them stay competitive.

According to CBS, it has made life easier for its affiliates by telling stories the way local television stations tell stories. "Our packages are a minute-thirty, our inserts are a minute-twenty. We try to make the story look like it belongs in a local newscast,'' says Mondora.

CBS Newspath, which has already converted its news feed to digital, is busy rolling out its broadcast-quality video-on-demand system. The VOD system, called Newspath 2000, should be up and running at every CBS affiliate this fall.

ABC NewsOne also wants to move ahead with its plans to deliver a digital news feed. However, such an undertaking still needs network approval. "I am hopeful we'll get approval,'' says Don Dunphy Jr., vice president, ABC affiliate news services.

The plan would also include putting file servers and KU downlinks at every ABC affiliate. "We would push out to stations the 20 to 25 major stories of the day that every affiliate would be interested in. That material would be stored in their file server for use on their local newscast. Any other story-we do about 300 a day-they would request from us,'' says Dunphy.

The biggest area of growth for NewsOne and its affiliates has been the morning time period, says Dunphy. Stations want to have a live presence in the morning, he says. Since January, ABC NewsOne has done about 2,600 live shots, including group live shots that every affiliate can take and custom live shots for individual stations, for the roughly 200 affiliates using the service, says Dunphy. About 1,200 of those shots were on the Elian Gonzalez story.

The demand for live shots remains "enormous,'' says Jack Womack, executive vice president, CNN Newsource, the leading independent news service. Stations want as much as we can give them, says Womack. "We've been at over 100 different locations already for live opportunities. It's for us to provide material-as much of it exciting and live-as we can every single day. That's what we've really focused on this year.''

The challenges for Newsource are a little different, according to the CNN news executive. "We've got to be smarter about customizing stuff in terms of live. You've got to prove it every day that you're valuable to these stations. You've got to have the same energy every day in covering news that some people have in covering only breaking news.''

Just sitting back and waiting for the breaking news is not for Newsource. "If we sat in the firehouse and waited for the breaking news that never came, we'd still be sitting there. So what we've tried to do is go out and cover as many interesting venues for our affiliates as we can. We've particularly focused on the morning time spot, covering interesting live things like the opening of the new rock 'n' roll museum in Seattle and Dinosaur Sue in Chicago,'' explains Womack.

At FOX NewsEdge, digital conversion has been a top priority. "We are going digital. It's not going to be a complete conversion until next year,'' says Dave Winstrom, director of NewsEdge. "But it's going to be great for us. It adds to our transponder space and the number of live shots we can do for affiliates. We'll be better able to meet their needs for live shots.''

As the affiliate demand for news increases, NewsEdge responded by putting out an entertainment package, at least one a day, sometimes more often. And it delivers a business report every day, says Winstrom. Broadcasters really depend on those feeds, he says. The service's sports feed is especially popular. Winstrom says a NewsEdge team works with FOX Sports Net.

NewsEdge, the newest of the network services, continues to grow. It has a staff of 120 and distributes 25 daily news feeds. There's never anybody on the NewsEdge staff that just says no to an affiliate, says Winstrom. "Even if we can't give them the exact live shot they want, we'll bend over backwards to make it work and give them something else along the way.'' It's the relationship NewsEdge has with its affiliates that "makes us strong,'' he says.

Conus News Services is the smallest of the independent news operations with a maximum of 125 stations. Earlier this year, Conus went from an analog service to a fully integrated digital-distribution network. It's running news feeds now 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The company installed 200 satellite dishes and more than 300 satellite receivers around the country, says Conus President Terry O'Reilly.

The digital service gives local TV news producers ultimate flexibility, says Tom Becherer, vice president, Conus News Services. "They have flexibility when it comes to taking a look at what Conus is offering and ultimate flexibility in being able to chose what he or she is looking for for their newscast. And we're putting unique content in that rolling news feed."

The company is also striving to change its image. Conus has a new logo and has deployed an aggressive marketing team headed by Sara Harrell, vice president, marketing and development. "One of the things I was charged with was to redefine Conus. We needed to create a brand. A brand that would speak of what we wanted Conus to be-a more progressive and cutting-edge group,'' says Harrell.

For NBC News Channel, launching NewsTracker-its broadcast-quality video-on-demand system-has been a major initiative. There have been some glitches. "We did run into some problems related to software and installation,'' admits Bob Horner, president, NBC News Channel. "This is a two-way interactive computer network with an awful lot of features. Since no one has ever done this before, it was not as smooth as we had hoped, but we think it is having a happy ending,'' he says.

The vast majority of NBC affiliates are now using NewsTracker and rely on the system as their primary method of receiving material. For example, he says, in a 24-hour period, 159 affiliates downloaded as many as 3,500 items from News Channel. "We feel we're just on the verge of a very big success here,'' says Horner.

News Channel has also embarked on a project to speed up the newsgathering process. It has developed a "Newsmail'' system that uses enhanced PC's to send broadcast-quality video over the Internet. "This is working today in 13 cities; we're going to roll it out in more cities as the year goes on,'' explains Horner. He says News Channel is seeking a patent for its Newsmail system.

"We put it principally in cities where we had no satellite uplink, no easy way to gather the news before. We're going to use the system to help us eliminate any markets where we are unable to bring in news on a rapid basis,'' says the NBC executive.

Horner says that once News Channel receives the broadcast-quality material from those stations over the Internet, the service basically decodes it, turns it back into video and then delivers it to all the other NBC affiliates on NewsTracker. "It's a very exciting way to extend our reach and help us be even stronger than we are now as a news organization.''