Dow Smith, a former news director and current professor of broadcast journalism at Syracuse University, recalls that, in the 1970s, CBS would send affiliates' news directors six stories the Cronkite show had rejected. "That's what you'd get from the networks: rejects from the evening news," he says. "There was nothing of the major news of the day."
"It was a deliberate attempt," recalls veteran newsman and CNN founder and President Reese Schonfeld, "to preserve their evening-news ratings by making sure the affiliates didn't have important national news. It was policy."
By the end of the 1990s, though, that policy had changed dramatically. Today. most newsrooms have a choice of information sources for national and international news that range in content from prepared packages to raw video and in price from the cost of cooperation to significant amounts of cash.
The major player has been CNN Newsource, with more than 650 affiliates. But, for the past year, a united network force, the Network News Service (NNS), more or less a cooperative formed by the major broadcast networks (except NBC), has battled in the station-level trenches with CNN Newsource.
Newsource is and has been the dominant player, servicing about 80% of all domestic stations that have newscasts. NNS is used by 80% to 85% of the stations from the three networks that support it. The advantage for those stations? NNS is free to affiliates and paid for by the networks.
The evolution of CNN's news services, like those of the 24-hour-news channel itself, is the stuff of legend. Schonfeld, having created the Independent Television News Association co-op (modeled after the Associated Press) in the mid 1970s for independent stations with newscasts, joined with Ted Turner in 1978 first for the 24-hour cable network CNN and later for a service among news-producing stations.
"All the affiliates felt free to work with us," Schonfeld recalls. "We took only one station per market. Within months, we had stations bidding, trying to get in. When Ted realized they would pay to get in, he said, 'Why shouldn't we sell it?'"
The networks, Schonfeld says, were forced to develop their own feeds. "CNN made it impossible for networks to hold back news from local stations. As soon as Ted started selling, the networks had to start including their own material. Probably CNN's most significant contribution to news is that it forced the networks to compete with their own affiliates on major news stories. "Of course, Newsource was never alone. The Associated Press, the granddaddy of current news services, is as ubiquitous in television as it has been in print for more than 100 years. It feeds sound and video to hundreds of television stations and is particularly well- regarded, according to news directors, for its APTN international news service.
There's also Hubbard Broadcasting's CONUS, which claims nearly 100 member stations and offers a full-service Washington bureau. NBC, with its powerful group of owned stations, affiliates and cable networks, has its own North Carolina-based service, NBC News Channel. Several major station groups also run their own services, exchanging stories across network affiliations but within common ownership.
But, for years, each of the networks—ABC with NewsOne, CBS with Newspath and Fox with NewsEdge—has offered its affiliates news from around the nation from other affiliates and from network resources. Maybe a CBS affiliate couldn't get the Chandra Levy story from CBS Evening News. But CBS stations could get it from CBS' own feed, which in the Levy case came from Washington affiliate WUSA(TV), other CBS News shows or from a Newspath correspondent working the story.
Of course, this year, CBS affiliates could also rely on video regarding the Levy story—among others—from Fox-owned WTTG-TV. Through the NNS news-sharing cooperative, which has 81.6% participation by the three networks' affiliates, ABC, CBS and Fox feed each other as they feed themselves.
The exclusion of NBC (and CNN) came naturally. "It goes back to the history of the conversation that started NNS," says Bill Mondura, who heads CBS' Newspath. During early coverage of the latest election, in 1999, "we were constantly in a pool arrangement with ABC or Fox. We had different needs from CNN or NBC. With their multiple cable channels, they needed either more or less of something than we did. So ABC, Fox and CBS found that our needs meshed in campaign coverage, and we started talking about NNS."
In the context of the arrangement for politics, the networks created a mini-pool. "We saved a ton of money doing that," says Mondura. "And we thought, 'Why not expand it into news services?' The negotiations took off from there."
NNS kicked off last year amid network enthusiasm, millions in network money and perception by some major station groups that the agreement offended notions of competition and disproportionately served Fox stations, which brought more cash to the table but fewer affiliates.
"There's a competitive nature to get the pictures on first," says George Case, vice president of news at Fox and head of the Fox NewsEdge news service. "But newsrooms across America have been trying to figure out how they could work together to cover big stories in their market. They spend tons of money; they don't need all the cameras. NNS is the first step; it's going to be bigger. The networks will strengthen NNS; there'll be more pooling; we could orchestrate the pooling."
The networks behind NNS say that any objections probably reflect the overall friction that has emerged among networks and affiliates more than specific problems with NNS and that the objections based on competition and Fox' participation can just as easily be made against Fox stations' participation in Newsource.
NNS, says Mondura, is a "back-office operation to the network news services. What NNS does is work for Newspath, NewsOne and NewsEdge. We collect affiliate news video, and, in many cases, we get just one version instead of three versions of the video. Why go get that same video three different times? Why not share it among ourselves and save some money? We're talking about generic news video; nothing particularly distinctive about it. Why should we spend money on stuff that isn't distinctive?"
Mondura adds that, by its very nature, all the material is pretty much the same. "Where we compete is on enterprise reporting, on original reporting, on news of another sort," he says. "The fewer resources we can devote to the same picture the other guys have, the more we can devote to the kind of news that is not homogeneous. I feel strongly that what we're doing allows us to do more that is different. I've had more money to spend traveling to stories, to rent more trucks."
Don Dunphy, head of ABC's NewsOne, says it's also a solid backup. "If your uplink is not operational or the van is down, it's an insurance policy not only for the stations but also for the networks."
To the viewer, says NNS head and former Belo executive Alan Suhonen, the result is transparent. "Our end product is there to enhance the station's product." Where CNN's Newsource or another news service might provide a full news package, "the function of NNS is to provide base material. The same wire [services] go into every newsroom, but two stations will come up with two different stories, because of the different style of the newscasts and the personalities involved. We don't provide packages, but elements to stories: sound bites, video.
"Our goal," Dunphy continues, "is to focus more of our resources on our core unilateral service correspondents, packages, features; that's where the game is played today."
In its first year of operation, NNS says that it has boosted the network news feeds with several key stories, including WJLA-TV Washington's live chopper coverage of Elián Gonzáles' departure from Andrews Air Force Base to Cuba and live video from WOFL(TV) Orlando, Fla., of a hostage crisis. Other highlights include KMGH-TV and KCNC-TV Denver and KTVT(TV) Dallas coverage of the capture of escaped Texas convicts last January.
So far, those that do not participate in NNS, including Hearst-Argyle, Gannett, Post Newsweek and Belo, remain unconverted despite some coups.
"We didn't feel the need then, and we still don't," says Mark Effron, head of news for Post Newsweek Stations. "We're not comfortable having our video end up on Fox. We're comfortable with our primary network relationships, and CNN is a good backup. We don't feel our stations are losing anything."
Former Belo news chief Marty Haag, who opposed NNS, says the problem is the homogenization of news. "NNS did bring parity to Fox, and they got to join a very exclusive club without an initiation fee."
Hearst-Argyle News Vice President Fred Young acknowledges that he sometimes feels like a dinosaur in the face of changing attitudes, because he loves the competitive aspect of the news business, something to which reliance on shared news is anathema. "We may not have everything in every market, but, when you jump into bed with your competitors, you lose the competitive edge."
One of the drivers for NNS participation has been its cost of entry. Fox, ABC and CNN affiliates can use NNS for the cost of participation. In a major market, CNN's service can easily run six figures a year; in the very top markets, it can break into seven figures, according to news directors. Given the ad slowdown, cost savings have become more important.
"NNS could grow and preempt CNN," says Case. "It's going to boil down to economics. Stations are going to wake up and realize they're spending too much money. Economics will dictate. CNN guarantees going live out of any market that has news. We've matched that guarantee. They'll have five for five [stations in a market]. We'll have three for five. And by 2002, all our Fox stations will have launched news. There's now 125, there'll be 182."
One issue that could cloud the future of NNS, however, involves speculation that continues to surface regarding a merger of some sort between CNN and either ABC or CBS. It's unclear how that would affect both CNN Newsource and NNS.
Possible NNS uncertainty aside, several news directors say that, even with the significant new entry of a less costly service, CNN's service remains invaluable. One news director at a major-market independent comments, "We're not eligible for NNS. We have CNN and APTN, and, between them, they don't miss much."
Still, not everyone in TV news devotes much attention to news services. At WSAZ-TV Huntington, W.Va., Ken Selvaggi, news director of the Emmis Broadcasting-owned station, can't get NNS because of his NBC affiliation and doesn't get CNN Newsource by choice. Nothing against CNN, he says, "but we're pleased with what we get from NBC Newschannel, we get some news over the Emmis network, and, more important, we're hyper-local." In his station's five hours of daily local news, he notes, "we don't even use NBC all that much. We generate our own news."
To get the CNN service, Selvaggi estimates, would "cost about two reporters," probably in the high-five-figure range. "In a perfect world, you get everything. I'd rather have the two reporters."