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Video services coming of age

Jul 16, 2001  •  Post A Comment

When the news divisions of ABC, CBS and Fox announced in December 1999 that they were forming an alliance to provide news video to the affiliates of all three networks, the announcement triggered numerous questions.
Among them: Why were these competitors collaborating on such an extensive scale? Why wasn’t NBC invited to participate? What might this mean for CNN Newsource? Will such a sharing arrangement inevitably dull the partners’ competitive edges?
Today, non-Network News Service members still ask, essentially, why stations affiliated with ABC and CBS would want to share their news resources with Fox. Questions continue to be raised about the impact of the new competition on CNN Newsource.
Video of a dramatic July 4 river rescue of a couple was supplied to NNS by both CBS-owned WCCO-TV and Hubbard-owned ABC affiliate KSTP-TV in Minneapolis. On July 5, ABC’s “Good Morning America” used WCCO video (allowed under the NNS agreement) and gave the CBS station on-air credit (not required under the NNS agreement, as was supposed to have been made clear at the network level).
Seeing cross-town rivals credited ruffled some feathers at KSTP, which received a gracious note of apology from “GMA” executive producer Shelley Ross.
“This is kind of an occupational hazard in the world of cooperatives that cross network lines,” said KSTP News Director Scott Libin, who had experienced a similar situation last spring and had been promised by the network it would not happen again.
“I think it’s fair to expect our network to live up to its promises to us,” he said.
“Even if we pulled out of NNS, what happened last week could still happen,” said Mr. Libin, who nonetheless would rather be part of the cooperative than not.
“NNS has been a resource of value to our viewers. We wouldn’t have participated just to be team players if I didn’t think that was the case.”
Most people involved with NNS say that such kinks-and this one was an ABC communications problem, not an NNS system problem-and growing pains are to be expected.
“Maybe the most interesting thing is how well three networks can compete very aggressively on one level and yet cooperate on another level,” said Jack Abernethy, executive vice president of Fox News.
NNS, which launched in the wee hours of June 12, 2000, grew out of discussions among its three partners about White House and election pool coverage-situations in which otherwise competitive news organizations long ago learned how to share the costs and rigors of covering basic news bases. That ad hoc relationship had never included NBC News, which presented unique competitive questions with its own NBC News Channel and with MSNBC and CNBC.
The NBC News Channel, a co-op born of the need to cut costs as well as to appease affiliates, who are 50-50 partners in the venture, was launched in January 1991 in Charlotte, N.C.
NBC News Channel charges its approximately 200 member stations an annual fee (subtracted from the station’s compensation) that cannot be raised without the approval of an eight-member board, which is made up of half network and half affiliate representatives. In addition to supplying stations with video and fully reported news packages, NBC News Channel also brings in revenue by selling transponder time, live shots and a limited archival service.
President Bob Horner, who has run NBC News Channel since it launched in a remodeled warehouse space, moved the operation into new facilities on the campus of Belo-owned WCNC-TV, Charlotte, N.C., in early 1992 and now oversees a staff that hovers around 100, 80 percent of them in Charlotte and the rest sprinkled in such places as Los Angeles, New York, Denver and Miami.
Alan Suhonen became the general manager of Network News Service after 16 years with Belo, the last four as news operations manager for Belo’s Washington bureau. All the staffers who report to him are on permanent loan by the three partner networks, whose cash and in-kind contributions are said to total between $10 million and $20 million a year.
Whereas NBC News Channel and CNN Newsource have dedicated correspondents and offer reported pieces to their subscribers, NNS, which costs participating stations nothing except contributions, traffics only in video (with a minimum of explanatory text). No cutesy features, no star reporters, just video solicited and shepherded by regional NNS producers.
“We’re just eliminating redundancy and sharing in a pool of generic footage. That’s what CNN did-and did very effectively for a long time,” Mr. Abernethy said.
CNN Newsource, which was unable to make available an executive for this story, has 650 affiliates (including some 80 percent of all news-producing stations in the country, the majority of them affiliated with one of the major broadcast networks) from which it collects news and to which it sells everything from live reports to funny features and graphics at fees that tend to run higher in major markets than in smaller ones.
One Newsource client in a Top 10 city said the increased competition has produced improvements in such areas as talent and content variety at CNN Newsource.
“They’re raising the bar. They’re trying very hard to satisfy their clients,” said the news director, who is “90 percent happy” with the CNN service.
That Fox-owned stations still subscribe to CNN-News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch had to reverse his edict to drop CNN several years ago when the Fox Television Stations group argued that it needed CNN material to fill out its newscasts-is an irony consistently noted whenever the question comes up of why ABC and CBS partnered with Fox in NNS.
“The groups that have expressed the most dissatisfaction with the arrangement with NNS are, almost to a one, subscribers to CNN and have been for a long time. … They have been paying CNN for years to share their video with Fox,” said Bill Mondora, director of news for Newspath at CBS, whose owned-and-operated stations are among CNN Newsource’s subscribers.
“Fox brings more cash to the table than either CBS or ABC,” said Bob Murphy, the senior vice president for multimedia who oversees ABC’s news-feed outlet NewsOne. A lot of the infrastructure [of NNS] comes from being a partner with Fox.”
Mr. Murphy said NewsOne has tallied the number of times “our stations are advantaged” by contributions from Fox affiliates. “It far exceeded our expectations.”
Indeed, when NNS lists highlights from its first year, Fox stations are credited with giving the service (and its clients) an edge on stories that ranged from a high-rise sniper incident in Orlando, Fla., in July 2000 and the rescue of painters dangling from the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit last November to live aerial shots of a small plane landing on one wheel in Miami in April.
Still, such station groups as Mr. Suhonen’s former employer, Belo, and Cox and Hearst-Argyle do not participate in NNS. Fear of more incidents like the one involving the Minneapolis river footage is one reason; discomfort with Fox News is another. Even so, the individual stations do benefit from news feeds offered independently by the networks: ABC’s NewsOne, CBS Newspath and Fox News Edge.
But with participation now at more than 80 percent of the possible affiliates, NNS has two and three stations in most markets as potential sources of video, which makes it less expensive to gather and adds a safety net. When one station’s chopper is grounded, for example, another can be utilized.
Executives rush to say that such efficiencies help the network partners keep down satellite and crew-coverage costs-and thus help the networks strengthen their own operations or hold down costs they must pass on. Mr. Murphy believes NNS helped ABC News hold down a recent rate increase (which sources peg at 3 percent) for NewsOne, and Mr. Mondora said it enabled him to hire a ninth correspondent for Newspath.
Ray Deaver, the CBS affiliates chairman, said NNS “got off to a shaky start, but it’s gotten better.” Is it here to stay? “I think so,” Mr. Deaver said.