The Time Warner Inc./ Advance Newhouse partnership's Tampa, Fla., system launched Bay News 9 in September 1997, only the third 24-hour cable news network launched by Time Warner.
Nearly nine years later, Bright House Networks executives point to Bay News 9, and four other services borne out of the network, as key contributors to its success in the marketplace.
“We're driven to provide a unique service to our customers that is not available elsewhere,” said Elliott Wiser, group vice president of news programming for Bay News 9. “Bay News 9 has been a tremendous success with its ratings and the reception by advertisers.” Advertisers include Ace Hardware and the Publix supermarket chain.
The 24-hour news network, over time, has been joined by Bay News 9 en Español, the nation's first 24-hour local cable news service; Travel Weather Now, a 24-hour weather channel carrying out-of-town weather maps, forecasts and information; Tampa Bay On Demand, which carries arts, entertainment and news programming on Bright House's video-on-demand system, and Catch 47, the local sports network BrightHouse launched Jan. 1. All are available to the 400,000-plus digital subscribers on Bright House's system.
What drives these services, Wiser said, is Bright House's goal to provide its subscribers information they can't get anywhere else, finding the holes in local TV station programming to create a niche with viewers.
In the early days, Bay News 9 hung its hat on extensive weather coverage, not only during Florida's hurricane season but covering the area's lightning storms. (According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, central Florida endures more lightning strikes than any other part of the country, hence Tampa's National Hockey League franchise's Lightning moniker.)
“We specialize in weather and do wall-to-wall coverage of hurricanes,” Wiser said, starting days before a hurricane might hit.
“We also do wall-to-wall coverage on election night,” he said, something other local TV news stations don't normally do.
Three months ago, the channel launched a weekly political affairs show with the St. Petersburg Times, and Gov. Jeb Bush was the first guest.
Partnering with local newspapers is a key part of Bay News 9's community outreach. The St. Petersburg Times, for instance, has a reporter anchoring the political affairs show and promotes the program in the newspaper.
Bay News 9's Citrus County news bureau is housed in the offices of the Citrus Chronicle, another local newspaper. Bright House has a fiber connection from the bureau to Bay News 9 to carry live reports from the site. “Our reporters sit in their edit meetings,” Wiser said. Bay News 9 has similar arrangements with the Manatee Herald, Lakeland Ledger and the Tampa Bay Business Journal.
Bay News 9's 133 employees put together a mix of both live and recorded news each day. “It's like a jukebox,” Wiser said. “Any hour could have a mix of live and recorded news.”
“It's very much a different approach,” he said. “We've moved out of the paradigm of affiliate news,” with live newscasts in the 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. time block.
There are five TV stations in Tampa-St. Petersburg that run local news in the 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. morning time block, and Wiser said Bay News 9 was No. 3 in the Nielsen Media Research's November ratings, ahead of two network affiliates. “On Saturday and Sunday morning, we have very strong numbers in the market,” Wiser said.
Bay News 9 generates a 1 rating weekday evenings, Wiser said, a rating point or two behind some of the network affiliates. “Showing up in the [ratings] is a big accomplishment,” he said, since many local cable news channels don't have minimum viewership to get rated by Nielsen. And Wiser's competitors also have strong syndicated TV lead-ins, like The Oprah Winfrey Show and Dr. Phil, which help their news ratings.
Bay News 9 also takes a different tone to news coverage; in short, they are not ambulance chasers. The channel's Web site carries a nine-point “Crime Guidelines” list of what it will and won't show on air.
Corpses aren't shown unless they significantly add to the story, and only after a 10- second warning. The channel won't interview “grieving relatives” unless permission is granted.
Most nonfatal stabbings, shootings or suicides won't be covered. And murder stories won't be repeated within a 12-hour period unless new information about the case surfaces.
Wiser said he created the crime guidelines while he was a TV news director in Richmond, Va., in the early 1990s. “It's nice to be able to do good journalism, to be solid and be successful with it,” Wiser said. “We don't need to show dead bodies to be successful.”
With the success of Bay News 9, Wiser and company launched the Spanish version in March 2002.
“Every day we do one to two stories specific to the Tampa community,” Wiser said. While Hispanics make up 9% of the entire system's population, the city of Tampa is 20% Hispanic.
“We've had tremendous success with that channel,” Wiser said. “There was nowhere to get Spanish news, or weather in Spanish.”
The Spanish channel has 10 dedicated employees, who provide Spanish versions of the news stories on Bay News 9, including the network's marquee weather and election coverage. The channel has its own list of Spanish advertisers.
When Bright House launched on-demand service in Tampa in 2001, it was inevitable that the company would turn to Wiser's group to provide content. But on-demand programming isn't limited to news. In fact, arts and entertainment programming lead the list of content, Wiser said, ranging from restaurant reviews and, lifestyle pieces to museum tours and celebrity interviews.
“We could have up to 85 titles,” Wiser said, rotated throughout the month. “We're creating unique programming that's not available elsewhere. It's a service to our customers.”
Wiser's latest venture launched January 1st: Catch 47, a 24-hour local sports network that grew of out a local origination channel that carries some high-school sporting events.
Catch 47 is the official channel of the University of South Florida, Wiser said, with current heavy coverage of men's and women's basketball.
“We produce six local programs a week,” including live high school and college basketball games. A local sports anchor, Dick Crippen, hosts a weekly sports magazine show, and the network plans to carry the annual charity softball game led by former Major League Baseball player Wade Boggs.
Wiser said that Catch 47 can find a home because some local TV stations are cutting back on their sports news coverage. “We've got a nice program schedule,” he said. “The company is very committed to that channel. We're making a commitment to viewers for programming they are not getting elsewhere.”
It adds up to a lot of work that Wiser believes pays off with happier subscribers.
“We don't do these things to make money necessarily, we're doing it as a community service,” he said. “It's an investment in the community. The support from Bright House has been tremendous.”
Indeed, Robert Miron, CEO of Advance/Newhouse, which owns Bright House Networks, has a keen interest in news, having worked in the Newhouse Publishing empire most of his career.
They don't just pay lip service to local programming, Wiser said. “They believe in local programming,” Wiser said, “and that's a great thing.”