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Cable news-net battle brews—in Raleigh?

Time Warner Cable is pushing deeper into the local news business. Its latest target is Raleigh, N.C., where last Friday the country's second-largest MSO launched its sixth local cable news network.

The giant MSO has local cable news outlets planned for five other cities as well.

With the launch of Time Warner's News 14 Carolina, the operator's 450,000 Raleigh-area customers may never run out of local news options. Of course, the market's broadcast stations already offer the usual menu of local broadcast newscasts.

But in the nation's 29th-largest market (which includes Durham and Chapel Hill), News 14 actually became the second local cable news network.

CBS affiliate WRAL-TV diginet NewsChannel, launched last July, beat Time Warner Cable to the punch. But you have to do some major-league surfing to find it.

As the channel's name suggests, Time Warner gave News 14 a plum dial position on basic cable at channel 14. By contrast, WRAL-TV's NewsChannel, which launched last July, sits on the fringes of digital cable at channel 256. The station is owned by hometown-owned Capitol Broadcasting, and viewers have special loyalty to it.

Still, only about 100,000 Time Warner digital customers in the area receive NewsChannel. But News 14 is available to all customers in Time Warner's system, its fifth largest.

While much of the NewsChannel's programming consists of repeats of WRAL-TV's morning, noon and evening newscasts, News 14 plans to run a 30-minute news wheel, refreshing its coverage as news breaks and reports come in.

"If we spend the money to do it right, we'll rapidly become a competitor to 40-, 50-year-old brand-name stations," said Time Warner's VP of Local Programming John Newton, who oversees the corps of local news nets. Current Time Warner nets include New York 1; Bay News 9 in Tampa Bay, Fla.; Central Florida News 13 in Orlando; R News in Rochester, N.Y.; and News 8 in Austin, Texas.

"A big part of the return," said Time Warner's Newton, "is the acquisition and retention of subscribers."

Time Warner staffed its Raleigh operation with 90 employees and lavished the operation with a brand-new facility and high-end digital technology. Bureaus in Fayetteville, Chapel Hill, Durham and Goldsboro, N.C., will feed in coverage.

News 14 planned to air 12 minutes of ad time per hour, though Time Warner automatically takes some spots. The MSO will pony up the channel's operating costs until dual revenue from advertising and subscriber fees kicks in.

Despite the corporate muscle behind News 14, its competitor isn't daunted.

"At the end of the day," said WRAL-TV's VP and GM Jim Hefner, "the community knows us and knows our people."

WRAL-TV recently started taking a "C-SPAN approach," as Hefner calls it, covering select live events, including a meeting of the state election board and a visit by President Bush last week to Fort Bragg. Community coverage, Hefner hopes, will help NewsChannel stand out from both its broadcast competitors and News 14.

He probably wouldn't be happy to know News 14 sent three crews to Fort Bragg to practice covering live events and field production.

Stations elsewhere will soon feel the same pressure, as Time Warner preps to invade other markets where it is the dominant MSO. News nets in Charlotte, N.C.; Syracuse and Albany, N.Y.; and Houston and San Antonio are expected to debut this year.

Each market presents its challenges. In Houston, for example, cable penetration hovers around 55% despite being the country's 11th-largest DMA, according to Steve Wasserman, VP and GM for NBC affiliate KPRC-TV. "I don't know how successful a cable news operation can be," he said, "when almost half the market doesn't get cable."