BayTV blackout

In the first failure of a major regional news network, AT&T Broadband is pulling the plug on San Francisco news network BayTV.

The seven-year-old partnership with KRON-TV will go dark July 31 following AT&T's decision to remove the network from its systems in the Bay Area. Since the MSO controls about 90% of the cable systems in the San Francisco DMA, KRON-TV's owner couldn't keep the channel alive even if it wanted to.

AT&T executives said they were tired of low ratings, losses and uneven quality. The network never found a groove in its mix of news and other local programs (such as a local cooking show) and had ratings to prove it. BayTV executives brag that their 9 p.m. newscast occasionally hits a 1.0 rating. While that's competitive with KNTV-TV, which will replace KRON-TV as San Francisco's NBC affiliate in 2002, the cable channel's average ratings are far lower.

AT&T plans to substitute the Food Network, which an AT&T executive called "the single most requested channel by our subscribers." However, other industry executives note that the Food Network pays operators launch fees for carriage.

About 45 BayTV employees will lose their jobs with the shutdown. The channel was born from a 1993 retransmission agreement between former KRON-TV owner Chronicle Publishing and former system owner Tele-Communications Inc.

Dino Dinovitz, KRON-TV general manager, said that he had been in discussions with AT&T on and off since last November about keeping BayTV alive. "We had a variety of conversations for it to continue," he said. But in the end, "I just think that they no longer wanted to be in a partnership developing local content and products. They felt the Food Network would suit their purposes better. We didn't share that opinion."

Other TV executives believe that BayTV's problems are not pandemic in the regional- cable-news business. "The situation in San Francisco is an anomaly," said Phil Balboni, president of New England Cable News, which is also half-owned by AT&T. "What's going on in the country generally is, you have companies that are very committed to local news channels for their own financial and strategic reasons." He noted that AOL Time Warner is starting regional news channels in addition to the five the MSO already has on the air.

Even as it discontinues the cable news channel, KRON-TV will fill part of that void when it doubles its daily news output next year when it becomes an independent. The station will increase its weekday news output from 4.5 hours to 9 hours a day, Dinovitz said. It also will adapt some of the formats used by BayTV, such as the creation of a new morning show that will compete locally with Today
and Good Morning America.