Dobbs24-Hour Dream Comes True for CNNfn


New York-Lou Dobbs is long gone, but his goal for CNNfn will finally be realized in June: The business-news network will expand to 24 hours of coverage per day, Monday through Friday.

Shelby Coffey III, president of CNN Business News and CNNfn, announced last week that he had the go-ahead from CNN News Group chairman Tom Johnson and Time Warner Inc. vice chairman Ted Turner to go beyond CNNfn's current 18 hours per day to round-the-clock financial coverage.

Coffey, who joined CNNfn in November, said going to 24 hours was a priority for a number of reasons, not the least of which is making the network and its content viable for coming digital applications, interactivity and convergence. Those opportunities should grow after CNNfn parent Time Warner merges with America Online Inc.

"As we look at a digital future, it's vital to have a 24-hour service for other platforms, especially as we move toward our merger with AOL," he said.

The expansion comes as CNNfn, mother channel Cable News Network and several other 24-hour news channels have suffered ratings slumps during a slow start to the news year.

In turn, CNN's financial-news flagship, Moneyline News Hour, which is simulcast on CNNfn, has seen a viewership drop since former anchor and CNNfn president Dobbs left last June after a dispute with his bosses in Atlanta.

Far more challenging for CNNfn is the fact that the network is still limping along in terms of distribution, with only 13.6 million homes. Coffey was unwilling to offer any predictions about how the network will end the year in terms of carriage.

In the meantime, CNBC-with its massive 72 million-home base-is a juggernaut holding fast to its position as the lead, entrenched brand for business news-a hot category these days.

CNNfn's plans to go to 24 hours appear to signal that Turner Broadcasting System Inc. and Time Warner are committed to CNNfn, and that they aren't likely to pull the plug, despite such speculation in the past.

"Our expansion of CNNfn to a 24-hour service is a reflection of the importance of the franchise to our organization," Johnson said in a prepared statement.

CNNfn, which currently airs from 6 a.m. to midnight weekdays, is also launching The N.E.W. Show, as in "new economy watch." The network also has three new shows in development, and it plans to beef up its West Coast presence and coverage late this summer or in September. Moneyline, in fact, will become bicoastal, with Willow Bay co-anchoring from Los Angeles.

Coffey, a veteran of ABC News and the Los Angeles Times, said CNNfn's 24-hour push and West Coast expansion will put it in better position to cover technology issues, to serve primetime viewers on the West Coast and to cover the global economy, with live financial updates from London and Hong Kong markets.

All of this comes too late for Dobbs, who pushed hard for a 24-hour commitment. He lobbied TBS Inc. about it for years, threatening to quit at least once over the issue.

In January 1999, in an apparent case of wishful thinking, Dobbs announced that the network would finally go 24 hours later that year, despite the fact that he had never gotten the corporate OK to make that move, sources said.

Dobbs left the company last June after reportedly bumping heads with CNN/U.S. president Rick Kaplan.

Many underdistributed programmers such as CNNfn are banking that their coverage areas will expand as digital cable rolls out across the country and direct-broadcast satellite gains homes.

But that's not an overnight process. CNNfn, which lacks widespread distribution even on Time Warner Cable systems, is carried on Time Warner's digital-cable platform, "Athena TV," as well as on Cox Communications Inc.'s digital platform. But the service isn't yet part of Comcast Corp.'s digital offering. Worse, giant AT & T Broadband doesn't carry CNNfn on analog or on Headend in the Sky, its digital distribution service.

Doug Montandon, vice president of marketing for Galaxy Cablevision, said he'd most likely carry CNNfn if it were offered via HITS, which he uses for digital. But on his channel-locked analog systems, where he already carries CNBC, there's no room for CNNfn.

"The bottom line is that there are some other services that are doing a better job of reporting financial news," Montandon said.

Generally speaking, Moneyline has been trending down since Dobbs left, while CNBC's Business Center has seen its viewership increase. In the third quarter of last year, Moneyline averaged 292,000 homes, dipping to 268,000 in the fourth quarter. CNN officials pointed out that the show's first-quarter performance, with 273,000 homes, was an improvement over the fourth quarter.

Business Center has seen its delivery increase from 195,000 homes in the third quarter of last year to 287,000 this first quarter. In fact, the first quarter of 2000 marked the first full quarter that Business Center outdelivered Moneyline in terms of households.

Coffey doesn't see Moneyline's ratings slippage as a mere function of Dobbs being gone. He believes Moneyline is down just like all of CNN is down, due to the slow news period.

But CNBC senior vice president of business news Bruno Cohen maintained that Dobbs'exit has accelerated CNN's loss of audience. He pointed out that even in what CNN calls a slow news environment, CNBC's Business Center has seen its household numbers increase.

"Moneyline covers the same topic area we're covering at CNBC," Cohen said.

Fox News Channel executive producer of primetime programming Bill Shine also argued that Dobbs'absence has hurt. "There's a specific kind of audience that watches that show, and those audiences build up trust," he said. "People, after years and years, trusted Mr. Dobbs."

While FNC has developed several primetime talk shows with distinct personalities-destinations for viewers-Shine said, Kaplan has not. "In primetime on CNN, you can still name only one personality: Larry King," he added.