In recent months, major U.S. media companies have prioritized launching 24-hour cable news channels. These outlets hope to capitalize on a market that Turner Broadcasting System's CNN essentially has had to itself since its inception.
Yet buyers aren't convinced more cable news is what viewers want.
"News, sports and movies have been the staples of television since its inception but as CNN has shown, it is a relatively small audience for 24-hour news except during times of war and disaster," says Gene DeWitt, president of New York-based media-buying shop DeWitt Media. "It may be a tasty pie but it isn't a very big one."
DETAILS IN SHORT SUPPLY
So far, these new network operations have yet to finalize, let alone announce, many critical programming, production or advertising details.
ABC announced its plans to launch a 24-hour news service at a Dec. 5 press conference marked more by ABC News President Roone Arledge's disparaging remarks about CNN than by any hard information on the content and reach of ABC's new product.
Three months later, it has no name, rate card, launch date, cable carriage or set location.
The service's editorial content and production is headed by VP Jeff Gralnick, currently executive producer of "NBC Nightly News"-and a longtime veteran of ABC. But Mr. Gralnick, who was named to the post Feb. 15, was unavailable to answer questions about the service, according to ABC.
MSNBC, a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC, seems to be in somewhat more coherent form. While the venture has no exact launch date, Beth Comstock, NBC News' VP-media relations, says, "We will be rolling out this summer. The progress and development of the channel is going very well and we should be up sometime in August" at the latest.
AMERICA'S TALKING SILENCED
MSNBC will take over the cable space currently occupied by America's Talking, an NBC service launched in 1994 that now reaches 20 million households. In addition, Ms. Comstock says MSNBC "has commitments to have up to 35 million households by 2000."
The network also will feature an Internet service, says Marty Yudkovitz, president, NBC Interactive Media. Stories seen on NBC's over-the-air news programs will get fuller treatment on MSNBC and even deeper coverage on the Internet, he says.
The cable and Internet services "are joined at the hip," says Mr. Yudkovitz, adding that advertising will be accepted for the Internet version.
"The idea is to extend the audience, cross-promote and integrate at least some of the programming," he says.
The Internet version "is not just there to plug [another service], it's there to be a serious source of news and information," Mr. Yudkovitz says.
RATE CARD PRELIMINARY
The cable channel has not yet announced any programming and, while Ms. Comstock says they have a preliminary rate card, "For competitive reasons, we are not releasing too many details."
Fox, which faces the daunting task of building a news service from scratch, isn't big on the minutiae right now, either.
Roger Ailes, chairman-CEO of Fox News, says the channel "is going to try to launch this year, although that is not a lockdown. [Right now] we are working on a news-gathering organization."
The working name for the project is, simply enough, Fox 24-Hour News Channel, although Mr. Ailes says that is likely to change to something catchier before the launch.
"That is something that is under discussion. We have a couple of names in mind," he says.
One of this channel's potential problems is going to be finding space in an already crowded cable spectrum. One possible home-Fox's fX-is no longer an option since a deal was cut with Tele-Communications Inc. to change that outlet to a sports format.
Mr. Ailes declined to release any specific details on how many households the Fox news product might reach or on possible ad rates.
One thing he is willing to go on record about, however, is the editorial mission behind the Fox move: "The American people have lost a lot of confidence in journalism's ability to report objectively," a situation he and Rupert Murdoch apparently hope to remedy.
For its part, CNN-the obvious target of the new ventures-isn't exactly sweating about its potential new competitors.
Steve Haworth, VP-PR for CNN, says that while the network "is not feeling self-satisfied or complacen.....we have been in an extremely competitive environment from day one. Competition is nothing new to us [and neither is] watching our revenues and profits go up in the face of it."
Mr. Haworth describes the CNN brand as "very well-established in the public's mind [and thus] extremely well-poised to meet any and all competition."
He also notes that CNN had "long talks with Bill Gates and Microsoft" prior to the MSNBC deal but turned away from a possible partnership "because we decided we didn't want to give up 50% of our future."
Yet CNN is diversifying its offerings with a new business news service that carries an interactive element.
CNNfn, launched Dec. 29 and airing 12 hours daily, claims 5.5 million households-2.5 million of which are cable and the rest satellite, according to Karen Kemp, PR director for CNNfn.
She points out that the fledgling service was the "first to launch on a multimedia platform. Basically, we are doing what MSNBC says they will be doing a year from now."
"We do agree with NBC and Microsoft that there is a very strong business to be had leveraging news and the Internet," says Mr. Haworth.
So far, Ms. Kemp says, CNNfn has "exceeded our expectations in both ad sales and households" reached. Advertisers include American Express Corp., American Airlines, Anheuser-Busch Cos., General Motors Corp., Chrysler Corp. and Sprint Corp.
In response to reports that a 60-second spot on CNNfn could be had for as little as $100, Ms. Kemp says, "We never really discuss our figures, but I think that's a little low."
AUDIENCE QUESTIONS REMAIN
Although the potential bargains to be had in the expanded news field may tempt media buyers, the question of whether these ventures can attract a big enough audience to be a worthwhile marketing investment remains unanswered.
"Some of them are just a gleam in the chairman's eye .*.*. an anticipation of increased capacity.....For the short-term, I am not sure how meaningful they will be," says Jerry Dominus, senior partner-director of national broadcast for J. Walter Thompson USA, New York.
"As a buyer, I'm interested in having choices available but I am also interested in reaching meaningful numbers of people. I am concerned about the size of audiences these services will attract," Mr. Dominus says. "With an O.J. trial, it seems you can't go too far but on an ordinary day, there are just too many choices" for the audience.
For the backers of the services, Mr. Dominus says, "There are going to be some very expensive disappointments."
"Maybe two of them can make it but not three and absolutely not four or five," says Mr. DeWitt, declining to speculate on which of the services might succeed. "There is just not enough profitability in it."
CNN is still the clear frontrunner, Mr. DeWitt says.
The deep pockets of a Microsoft or Disney behind a service will make no difference, he says. "You can have a lot of money but that is not going to increase the size of the audience and you can buy all the advertising in the world but if people are satisfied with a product, it is very difficult to make them switch," Mr. De-Witt says.