Sites hope traffic spike outlasts war

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While most online news sites experienced traffic spikes at the war's start, they came alongside lost revenue resulting from jittery advertisers pulling or postponing ad programs, as well as self-imposed, short-term ad blackouts.

MSNBC.com, a joint venture between Microsoft Corp. and General Electric's NBC News, pulled ads for 48 hours as of March 18 and was prepared to lift the ban late March 21 subject to events. AOL Time Warner's America Online suspended ads from its Welcome screen, AOL News, and the CNN, Money and Time news areas at midnight March 19 for 48 hours. It planned to reinstate ads as of midnight March 21, although it too said it was prepared to extend the ad blackout as events warranted. Walt Disney Co.'s ABCNews.com, which recently launched ABCNewsLive, a streaming audio/video service available only to ABCNews On Demand subscribers, eliminated all pop-under ads for 24 hours, starting March 19, but as of press time, considered another black out. ABCNewsLive does not carry advertising. "Our primary concern is to have the most up-to-date information on ABCNewsLive, and to provide live and unfiltered briefings and details," said Bernard Gershon, senior VP-general manager, ABCNews.com.

Despite the ad dip, Web news sites hope attracting more consumers last week will mean more people click back through after the war coverage has waned.

"These kinds of news events [drive] more people to use online news sites, [and] there is some sustaining factor," said Neil Budde, president, The Neil Budde Group, a media consulting firm.

MSNBC.com racked up 19.6 million unique visitors in February, surpassing AOL Time Warner's CNN.com to become the No. 1 general news site, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. It offered free, live news feeds from NBC News and MSNBC cable. MSNBC.com serves nearly 400,000 streams daily; on 9/11 that number grew to 2 million.

Scott Moore, general manager, MSN News & Information, expects this month's audience to double, and is ready to handle between 66,000 and 100,000 simultaneous viewers accessing live news feeds. (See ratings chart, P. 3)

MSNBC.com drew 3.3 million unique visitors March 19, up 38% from the prior week, while Slate, its sibling site, saw an 84% increase in traffic, according to Nielsen/Net-Ratings.

Subscription video services such as Real Networks' RealOne SuperPass, which offers live news from ABCNews.com and CNN.com, also found themselves in front of a significant number of new users. Reuters last week launched a dedicated streaming video service enabling access to front-line war footage via its Web site. Similarly, Yahoo! added ABC News reports to its subscription Yahoo! Platinum service.

Real Networks on March 20 reported that its Real Broadcast Network was on track to reach as much as 4 million streaming audio and video accesses to content by the day's end, nearly three times its average daily traffic.

"If TV ratings triple or quadruple, then it's expected that Web traffic will as well," said Larry Goodman, president-CNN sales and marketing. Mr. Goodman said ad cancellations would result in "a significant revenue loss for the first couple of days," though he said the expectation "is that we'll be able to make that good later in the quarter."

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