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Florida News Networks Turn 10

Competing with the entrenched TV stations in their markets, Sunshine State news channels Bay News 9 and Central Florida News 13 have long celebrated their reputations for being scrappy. Now the Bright House Network cable channels are toasting something more significant: their longevity.

Tampa-based Bay News 9 turned 10 last week, while Orlando’s News 13 reaches a decade later this month. The significance is not lost at either newsroom. While plenty of news channels have failed in this same period, the pair have won over their communities thanks to tireless newsgathering and a parent company willing to fund their charter as a robust local voice.

Bright House executives and broadcast rivals alike say the cable channels have evolved from rough-edged rookies to respected Florida news sources. “When we launched, the idea was, just do 24-hour news,” says Bay News 9 VP/General Manager Elliott Wiser, who’s also the Bright House Group VP of News. “Now it’s a brand, and probably the strongest local news brand in each market.”

Several cable news outlets around the country are hitting milestones. Cablevision’s pioneering News 12 Long Island turned 20 last year, and Time Warner Cable’s NY1 News clocked 15 years last month. Belo’s NorthWest Cable News (NWCN) turns 12 in December.

The channels typically claim humble beginnings, with youthful staffers hauling cameras to local board meetings and doing stand-ups next to the cat caught in a tree. The Florida networks were hatched when Time Warner executives saw how NY1’s dogged coverage of day-to-day issues like transit and weather entrenched itself into the routines of New Yorkers, and how CNN was able to play a similar role on a national level. (Bright House took over the channels from Time Warner Cable early in 2003.)

For Robin Smythe, a self-proclaimed “old broadcast gal from way back,” jumping to launch News 13 after stints at WTVJ Miami and KSTP Minneapolis represented the opportunity to go long with stories she felt deserved extra time. “I was intrigued by the idea of building something from the ground up,” says the general manager, “and doing news all day instead of cramming it into a half hour.”

News 13 has doubled its work force in 10 years, to around 120 employees. It moved into a modern 30,000-square-foot facility smack in the middle of downtown Orlando earlier this year, and now produces seven different “program streams,” including Central Florida on Demand and News 13 Weather NOW. For Central Florida native Smythe, the channel’s crowning achievements include coverage of Sept. 11 and a series of devastating hurricanes in 2004. “For years, we’d go wall to wall with a big story when the others would go back to regular programming,” she says. “Breaking news is our regular programming.”

While Bright House won’t quote figures, it says it’s “very pleased with the channel’s contribution to the company.”

Similarly, Bay News 9 has become the place to go when neighborhood news breaks. Wiser, who helped launch NWCN in 1995, says the network more than holds its own with broadcast counterparts. Among households that receive the Bright House signal (64% of the market), he says News 9 beats all comers at 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., and is No. 2 at 7 to 9. “Not many local [cable] news channels can make that claim,” he says.

Moreover, while local cable has long been considered the minor leagues for newspeople looking to move up, Wiser says he ends up hiring more people from broadcast stations than he loses to them.

Broadcast managers have noticed. Henry Maldonado, VP and General Manager at Post-Newsweek’s WKMG Orlando, says he’s seen News 13 grow into a reputable news source, and a place to find quality staffers. “They’ve gone from just kind of being there to a good resource for the community,” he says. “When you want a quick take on what’s going on around town, that’s the news station.”

After a few sips of bubbly, Bright House brass are focusing on increased competition, such as broadcast stations launching 24/7 news on their digital channels, as well as planning HD newscasts and increasing the channels’ reach. “We’ll continue to populate the brand across various platforms, whether it’s Internet, mobile or on-demand,” says Wiser. “We’ve got a nice head start.”

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