Scoops In the Sunshine State

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Bright House Networks is taking aim against its competitors with two local news services in the Sunshine State — and company officials say their Tampa-focused Bay News 9 and Orlando-area Central Florida News 13 give them a leg up with many viewers.

Both services were launched under the auspices of Time Warner Cable almost seven years ago: Bay News 9 debuted in September 1997, and currently serves over 1 million subscribers. Central Florida News 13, which serves 770,000 customers, bowed a month later.

Their value has become very clear.

NETS OFFER AN EDGE

“These are unique services that satellite and the [regional Bell operating companies] can’t provide,” says Elliott Wiser, vice president of news programming for Bright House’s Florida Group and Bay News 9’s original general manager. “It’s the ultimate customer service, in a personalized way that resonates with people. It’s important to their lives.

“We get e-mails all the time from people writing, 'I used to be with satellite, now I’m back. I missed Bay News 9 or Central Florida News 13.’ There’s a real receptivity.”

Citing data from Houston-based research firm The Media Audit, Wiser says Bay News 9’s Web site was the No. 1 local news site last June and July, topping even those of area newspapers.

STRONG RATINGS PERFORMERS

On a national basis, he said, The Media Audit data pegged Bay News 9 as the leading local cable-news channel, in terms of weekly cume rating, among adults 18 and older. It tallied a 49.3 rating in the Tampa DMA during February, 2004.

During that same month, Central Florida News 13 placed No. 6, with a 38 weekly cume rating in the Orlando DMA.

Wiser says Bay News 9 ranks third during weekday mornings among that adult group in the Tampa DMA, beating the market’s CBS and ABC affiliates. On weekend mornings, the channel also surpasses the NBC and Fox stations as No. 1 in the daypart.

As for Central Florida News 13, general manager Robin Smythe says: “We do very well during different times in the day. We pick up a lot of viewers at 7 a.m. after the local affiliates end their morning shows.

“And we’re also big from 10 to 11 p.m. by offering local news that can help people manage their time better.”

Both Smythe and Wiser attribute the services’ strength to their all-news, all-the-time approach, anchored by updated half-hour telecasts. “That’s what people come to Central Florida News 13 for — news,” said Smythe.

For his part, Wiser notes that a discussion about running different kinds of shows across daily programming schedules at the recent National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas hammered home the point that Bright House’s pair of news services offer the right alternative.

BETTERING BROADCAST

“There was a lot of talk about viewers who tune in to find information about what was happening in their area,” says Wiser. “When other networks started doing other kinds of programming, the news viewers turned away. Offering more and better news is what we want to do.”

To provide the best newscasts possible, Bay News 9 and Central Florida News 13 draw on one another’s resources, as well as those of other news organizations. Central Florida News 13 takes the lead role in coverage of the state capitol in Tallahassee, while business segments often originate from the Bay News 9 desk.

“On big stories that impact the entire region of central Florida, we pool our teams. We have resources that no one else does in the area,” Smythe says.

CONVERGENCE COVERAGE

Complementing those efforts are Bay News 9’s “convergence deals” with a trio of newspapers in environs neighboring Tampa. In Polk County, the network works with The New York Times Co.-owned Lakeland Ledger, says Smythe, while Knight Ridder’s Bradenton Herald brings more coverage to bear in Manatee County.

The Landmark Communications-owned Citrus Chronicle is Bright House’s partner for news in Citrus County. These relationships yield regular reports apprising viewers of the latest developments close to their homes.

“We’re fiber connected to each of the newsrooms,” he says. “We have 'talk backs’ with reporters and do joint reporting with the publications.”

Central Florida News 13, meanwhile, trades on a relationship that dates back to before current ownership structure. Until December 31, 2002, the regional service was 50%-owned by the Tribune Co.’s Orlando Sentinel, with the balance held by Time Warner Cable.

The following year, Advance/Newhouse took Time Warner’s 50% stake as part of the venture transaction that created Bright House. Late last year, Tribune was bought out, and now Bright House fully owns the regional news network.

Still, Smythe says the Sentinel and its staffers continue to make consistent contributions via five recurring segments, including “From The Cheap Seats,” which focuses on local sports; “Road Dog,” a local traffic and transportation segment; and public-affairs fare on Sundays.

Supplemental business information emanates from the Orlando Business Journal, one in a series of American City Business Journals owned by Advance/Newhouse. Along those lines, Bay News 9 taps the Tampa Business Journal for some of its business stories. Also falling under Wiser’s purview are two separate services targeted to the Tampa region: Bay News 9 Weather Now, which bowed in August 1999, and Bay News 9 en Español, the nation’s first 24-hour regional Spanish-language cable news service, which debuted in March 2002.

Wiser says the latter’s 15-minute news wheel was recently expanded to a 30-minute format.

HISPANIC NET RESONATES

“It’s a tremendously popular service in Tampa,” he says — and one that could be duplicated in the Orlando area. “There are a significant number of Hispanic viewers in Orlando. We’re taking a look [at a separate channel.]

“There is absolutely room for an Hispanic news service here,” adds Smythe, without specifying when a decision might be made.

In the interim, Central News Florida 13 will continue its relationship with WTMO, Orlando’s Telemundo affiliate. Under that deal, the regional news service produces daily news segments for the station.

The topical reports are tagged with the network’s identification at each segment’s end. Additionally, bilingual Central Florida News 13 reporters also conduct other interviews that sometimes appear on WTMO’s air.

WTMO, which doesn’t have a news department, is expected to enter that arena later this year, according to Smythe.

Whether or not a Spanish-language service is launched in central Florida, Wiser says Bright House is committed to providing local news operations in the state over the long haul.

“There has been a sizable increase to both staffs over the past year. And we’re not just spending money, we’re getting better journalists,” says Wiser.

Further underlining Bright House’s commitment: Wiser says Bay News 9 will enter a new facility in May 2005, while Central Florida News 13 is slated to get new digs later that year.

<p>Bright House Major Initiatives</p>

Retain and attract an outstanding group of employees;

Provide outstanding service and strong value to our customers, supported by an ongoing investment in our customer-care infrastructure (i.e. Web care, enhanced telephone platform);

Strong customer growth;

Strong growth in our data business — both residentially and commercially;

Continue driving advanced products like HD and DVR deep into our customer base, supported by HDTV product additions and new DVR technologies;

Continued development of our local news channels;

Continued exploration of VoIP

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