The battle to be No. 1

With more than 650 affiliates, CNN Newsource is a powerhouse in the news-service business. Local TV stations say the service is essential and that no matter how much broadcasters use their network-affiliate news services, they still rely heavily on Newsource.

But is CNN's dominance being challenged? Could Network News Service (NNS), a news-sharing cooperative comprising ABC, CBS and FOX that debuted in June, actually loosen Newsource's hold on many local markets?

CNN Newsource doesn't see NNS as a threat. At least that's what it says publicly. "No we don't,'' says Jack Womack, executive vice president of CNN Newsource.

"Frankly, we were the pioneers. We were out there doing custom and generic live shots before anybody else. We were doing instant archive turnaround before anybody else. Not to be arrogant, there's always been competition. If our people ask me what's our competition, I say we are. We are because every year we want to raise the bar of what we're doing,'' says Womack.

However, affiliates have told Broadcasting & Cable that Newsource is on the defensive. It appears that the emergence of NNS may have prompted Newsource to move forward with some technical upgrades to maintain its preeminence.

Stations say CNN is making improvements to its service by installing long-haul fiber into their newsrooms. Newsource won't confirm or deny that it has plans for installing more fiber; a company spokeswoman would only say that the service doesn't discuss its conversations with affiliates.

CNN is trying to upgrade its service, says Roger Gadley, news director at KMPH(TV) Fresno, Calif. "They're [Newsource] talking about adding more fiber so they can receive more things from more affiliates,'' he explains. He thinks the upgrade is in response to NNS, based on conversations he's had with a Newsource official. That official told Gadley that Newsource may have been planning to do this upgrade in the future, but after NNS was announced, those plans were immediately put into action.

Newsource has already started installing two-way fiber into some of the Gannett Broadcasting stations, according to Dick Mallary, senior vice president at Gannett Broadcasting. "I think NNS has probably had the same effect on them [Newsource] that they have had on CBS and ABC in the past,'' says Mallary.

"CNN has done a good job responding to NNS,'' says Peggy Phillip, news director at WMC-TV Memphis. "They've demonstrated their commitment to us. They're planning to put long-haul fiber into the building so that we can give and get easier.'' WMC-TV is an NBC affiliate and also uses NBC NewsChannel.

As a fledgling service, it's likely to take NNS some time to catch up to Newsource. NNS is overseen by ABC NewsOne, CBS Newspath and FOX NewsEdge, whose affiliates have access to NNS material as well as contribute to the cooperative. Its main objective is to give the networks and local stations a backup on key breaking stories as well as to help reduce duplicate coverage of routine news events. NBC News Channel and CNN Newsource were not invited to participate in the venture. Moreover, NNS' newsgathering ability is limited in some markets because not all affiliates have signed on. Broadcast station groups including Belo, Hearst-Argyle Television, Gannett Broadcasting, Cox Broadcasting and Post-Newsweek Stations have concerns about the news-sharing arrangement and are not currently participating.

That may change as ABC and CBS continue to press their case with those station groups, hoping they'll see the benefits of NNS.

"We came to the conclusion that by cooperating with ABC and FOX on basic coverage, we could free up resources that we could then use to do other things,'' says John Frazee, vice president of news services, CBS Newspath. For example, Newspath is increasing its correspondents from eight to nine. And, Frazee says, the service will focus more on providing feature material for affiliates that is "distinctive'' and not seen in myriad places.

"NNS is a way for CBS News to have access to as wide as possible a range of material for our own broadcast and for our affiliates,'' says the CBS news executive.

If it weren't for NNS, adds Frazee, CBS and FOX affiliates around the country would not have been able to air the video shot by ABC-owned WPVI-TV Philadelphia of the violent arrest of a police-shooting suspect just prior to the Republican National Convention. NNS immediately distributed that story to non-ABC stations, although it was embargoed in the local market. However, the embargo was later broken by some Philadelphia stations, which ran the tape under the fair-use exception to copyright law.

Indeed, one of the reservations broadcasters have with the news-pooling operation is that once they join NNS, they'll lose exclusivity of their own news material except for in the local market. Use of a station's video would be embargoed in the local market. Network executives point out that this is the current arrangement many stations already have with Newsource.

That may be the case, says Gannett's Mallary. "If there is any weakness with Newsource, it's that it's not exclusive." But, he adds, "That doesn't mean we want two services with the same weakness.''

The Gannett group also feels that NNS adds to its ongoing concern about those things that "blur the difference between one station and another,'' says Mallary. Consequently, the broadcaster is taking a wait-and-see approach. "We just feel that we need to sit back and let it play out its course and see what the pluses and minuses are before we jump on board. We don't see any particular advantage [to joining]. All of our stations have a relationship with CNN.''

"We just have some issues about sharing the video in a wider perspective than that which we already share. So we're seeing how NNS goes, we'll continue to assess it regularly,'' says Fred Young, vice president of news at Hearst-Argyle Television. Young also says Hearst-Argyle Television doesn't view the networks' news pool the same way it does Newsource. "CNN Newsource is a considerably different kind of backup. It's a service that's an alternative to the network service,'' he says.

There is some conjecture that the dissatisfaction with NNS may have less to do with the service itself and more to do with the strained relationship that already exists between the networks and their affiliates. And some believe the reason the networks are pursuing such a news-sharing venture is to destroy Newsource.

"This was not set up as a reason to get affiliates to drop CNN,'' says Don Dunphy, vice president, affiliate news services, ABC News. "It's the affiliates call on what news services they want. That has to be their decision.'' He says that more than half the ABC affiliates do not have CNN. "This gives those guys an insurance policy. It also gives the network an insurance policy.''

Dunphy says feedback on NNS from the ABC affiliates has been "enormously" positive. "They've gotten stories they never would have had before, and they've gotten them earlier than before.''

ABC affiliate WEWS(TV) Cleveland says it went into NNS "reluctantly" because of concerns about the embargoes. But now the station is a believer. "I've seen it work for us in the few weeks we've been a member,'' says Lynn Heider, news director at WEWS(TV) Cleveland, whose station is not a Newsource member. "On breaking news, they've offered a lot of options. If it's breaking news of interest to us, but not in our city, we're free to use all the NNS video. They might get some great shots from a Fox affiliate, a CBS affiliate and ABC.''

And Fox affiliate kmph(tv)'s Gadley says NNS has already proven to be of value to his station. "It [NNS] has been very useful; they're pumping out a lot of video. It's a good idea,'' he says.

"We are a newsgathering machine,'' says Alan Suhonen, NNS general manager. "Our focus is to provide the best material to the three affiliate services and member stations,'' he notes. "NNS is a work in progress. This hasn't been done before. We're constantly adjusting and constantly refining what we're doing.''

NNS processes the editorial and video information from the affiliates through its 17 regional offices across the country. Regional producers will contact the stations and work in conjunction with the news services in identifying NNS material and then move that material into New York. NNS will put the embargoes on it, put it in the server and then the three partners can access it from there.

Certainly taking on Newsource is a gargantuan task. "NewsOne has improved over the years; they continue to improve,'' says Ray Carter, news director at ABC affiliate wsb-tv Atlanta. But there have been situations, he says, where he's been glad his station has had CNN as a "backup."

Having more than one service is especially beneficial on those days when there are major breaking stories. Last month, for example, wish-tv Indianapolis was pleased it had both CBS Newspath and Newsource to rely on. "On a day like today, when you've got the Concorde crash in Paris and the peace talks breaking down, it's nice to be able to choose between the two for the better coverage," says Ted Linn, assistant news director with the CBS affiliate.

And at Fox affiliate wsvn(tv) Miami nothing can replace Newsource. NNS is "supplemental,'' says Alice Jacobs, vice president of news. "We will always rely on CNN. We have a very close relationship with them. We will always rely on them as much as we rely on Fox NewsEdge.''