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The Little Picture: Gore Would Be Wise to Give NWI Free Rein

Oct 13, 2003  •  Post A Comment

In a post-9/11 world, you’d think an all-global-news channel’s time had finally come. You’d be wrong. Of the niche ideas still seeking a sizable cable footprint, global news is way down there with The Puppy Channel and Black Women’s Television. You can catch BBC newscasts on public TV and BBC America. For now, CNN International time-shares with CNNfn when markets are closed. All the other world-news options are mainly offered on satellite.
Of these, by far the most thorough and professional is Newsworld International, the Vivendi-owned channel that was left out of the NBC-Universal deal concluded last week and is close to being sold to an investor group led by former Vice President Al Gore.
Since most people who follow the TV business had never heard of-let alone watched-NWI before August, when the New York Observer first reported Gore’s interest in the channel, no one seemed to know how to react to the news. Knowing nothing about Gore the programmer, analysts were left to speculate what he’d do with NWI. Skew younger, one helpfully suggested. Start a “liberal news channel,” said another.
Speaking as that rare viewer-the NWI junkie-here’s my suggestion: Leave it the hell alone. And start marketing it for a change.
Dumping NWI’s global-news format would be an opportunity lost. The channel already carries some of the most respected newscasts in the world: England’s “ITV Evening News,” the English-language version of Japan’s NHK newscast, German and European news from Deutsche Welle and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.’s nightly newscast, “The National.” And NWI airs hourly news updates from its Toronto broadcast center, which it still shares with the CBC, the channel’s creator.
The problem with NWI is that it’s been a foster child for most of its nine-year existence, living hand-to-mouth while passing from one guardian to the next. In 2000 the cash-strapped CBC and Power Broadcasting sold NWI and Trio to USA Networks Inc., then run by Barry Diller.
From there they became Vivendi Emerging Networks. But only Trio did any actual emerging. Under Lauren Zalaznick, Trio was refashioned as a smart pop-culture channel for hipsters; it will be a valuable addition to NBC’s cable stable.
NWI’s caretakers, meanwhile, did nothing to realize the value of the one commercial channel devoted to world news. I spoke recently with the head of programming acquisition for a top five cable operator who recalled a sales visit from a Vivendi rep. “He spent the whole presentation on Trio,” the executive said. Including satellite, NWI has a footprint in just 18 million U.S. households. A couple of digital cable services have taken pity on NWI, which is how it got into my home.
That’s how I became one of the lucky few to watch the CBC’s exceptional coverage of the Iraq war earlier this year. CBC reporters and analysts were much more skeptical of U.S. motives and decision-making than their American counterparts. Yet few could accuse the Canadians of sacrificing facts for opinion. Whatever Gore has in mind for NWI, he would be hard-pressed to improve on that.
Above all, NWI is a substantive network. The channel is crammed with long-form news reporting and expert analysis.
Some CBC staffers have been fretting that whoever buys NWI will strangle it before it’s really had much of a chance to thrive. Their fears are well-founded. And what would Al Gore’s, or anyone else’s, alternative be? Let’s face it, digital cable is not turning out to be the gold mine that forecasters thought it would be. Digital subscribers are churning at twice the rate of analog customers.
Perhaps that’s because so few digital channels offer much original, distinctive content. NWI is one that does and generously doles it out 24 hours a day. Now that’s my idea of liberal news.
Aaron Barnhart is a TV critic for the Kansas City Star.