Great Expectations

In a 24/7 world, ABC intends to stay in step. The network is kicking off its Democratic Convention coverage July 26 with a news channel, ABC News Live, that ABC News President Dave Westin believes is the future of electronic news.

It began when Peter Jennings expressed interest in giving TV viewers gavel-to-gavel coverage of the conventions. ABC decided to unveil a 24-hour news service, delivered via broadband and mobile devices. Stations broadcasting digitally will be able to slice off part of their spectrum and deliver the channel to viewers.

"We need to be on all those devices," says Westin. "My hope is that, over the next 14 weeks or so, we'll learn a great deal about what works." Currently, ABC's 10 O&O stations are committed to the trial, which runs through Election Day. Affiliates are poised, too. ABC and its affiliates have been talking about a 24/7 news product with local, national and international content delivered over the digital signal and cable systems.

"This is a great way to test the concept," says Young Broadcasting President Deb McDermott, chairwoman of the ABC affiliate board.

But it's too soon to predict how many affiliates will carry the service.

The biggest challenge stations face is ensuring that they have the technical capability to digitally deliver the signal. First, they need transmission gear that will allow the standard-definition ABC News Live service to be broadcast alongside a station's HD feed. It costs about $50,000 to put the technology in place to broadcast the digital multiplex.

Stations will also need available bandwidth. A station's digital signal delivers 19.39 Mbps (megabits per second). ABC News Live will require about 2 Mbps. That leaves ample room for a station's HDTV signal, with a proviso: If it is multicasting a weather service or other channel, there could be bandwidth crunch.

Preston Davis, president of ABC network engineering, isn't worried.

He says the project is pretty basic for New York-based network operations. ABC News Live has its own control room. A programming feed will be taken from that control room and routed to the ABC network transmission area. The signal will then be sent up to a Ku-band satellite, much like other ABC network feeds, and be available for reception at local stations. "It's uneventful from a technology standpoint," he says.

From a programming standpoint, it's sizable. A station like WABC New York could use the channel as a way to air deeper local coverage of the convention without taking away from its regular programming.

ABC News Live has been on the air since March 2003, available to broadband subscribers of AOL, Real Networks, SBC Yahoo! and Bell South and to Mobi-TV, a wireless service delivered to Sprint PCS cellular phones. The channel has two dedicated anchors and hourly updates, as well as live coverage of breaking events, typically satellite feeds of news conferences or government hearings.

But convention coverage will tap other ABC News resources, such as Jennings, who will anchor more than 25 hours of convention coverage for the channel, Sam Donaldson and reporter Claire Shipman. Content from ABC News TV programs will also be rerun. For example, in-depth interviews on the campaign trail for This Week With George Stephanopoulos
could be shown in their entirety.

Bernie Gershon, senior vice president and general manager, ABC News Digital Media Group, has overseen the growth of ABC News Live since its infancy, adding levels of complexity during the past 16 months. For example, the ABC News Live ticker has clickable links in the broadband environment. Traditional TV doesn't yet afford that level of interactivity, so the channel will add a device to handle the scrolling ticker that TV viewers expect. "We'll be looking at different ways to present our graphics," Gershon says.

Currently, ABC News Live reaches about 30 million viewers. The 10 O&O stations reach about 2 million or 3 million over-the-air HDTV households. But the real gains are in digital cable, where it could reach 25 million subscribers.

Adelphia and Charter expect to carry the show in Los Angeles. ABC's retransmission agreement with Time Warner Cable calls for ABC News Live to be added to Time Warner Cable's channel lineup. Because the channel is not an HDTV channel, it will be viewable by anyone with a regular digital-cable set-top box.

"We recognize that people have different locations where they'll access our content, whether it's a mobile device, a wirelessly connected PC, broadband or TV," says Gershon. "We're trying to formulate a product that will be available wherever or whenever they want."

To Westin, the purpose of this effort is clear: The future portends a 24/7 news channel. So whatever the trial's outcome, he says, "that's where we're going to end up."