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Profiting From Politics

Regional cable news networks are counting on this year's election suspense to fuel breakout ratings. Regionals, such as Time Warner's NY1 in New York City and Comcast's East Coast CN8, are establishing themselves as the comprehensive source for presidential, state and local races this year.

"We're doing everything and ceding nothing," says Elliott Wiser, general manager at Advance Newhouse-owned Bay News 9, which is carried to 1 million viewers on the Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla., cable system.

Beyond their niche as 24-hour local news sources, nearly all are trying to cast themselves as news headquarters for viewers who want smarter coverage of national politics as well. Another reason for regionals' success is that many local stations have pulled back on political coverage.

After years of duking it out in big TV markets, regional cable news networks are showing market-leading weekly cumulative ratings in New York City; Tampa, Fla.; Charlotte, N.C.; Albany, N.Y.; and Austin, Texas, according to The Media Audit, a marketing consultant in Houston. In other several major markets, they closing in on second- and third-place stations.

"We've always been a ratings leader during breaking news, and then a second front became morning news," Wiser says. "Now the third front is political coverage."

Already, the politicians are looking to the channels as their platform for political discussion. Former Republican New Jersey Governor and Chairman of the 9/11 Commission Thomas Kean three weeks ago picked CN8 to host a debate with Brendan Byrne, a Democrat and also a former New Jersey governor, over the White House race.

On Tuesday night, the regional networks are counting on historically high ratings to snag an even bigger crop of viewers and grab advertisers' attention.

"Election Night ratings are usually triple, maybe four times what we normally do," says Brian Benschoter, general manager of News 8 Austin, which is tracking the fallout set in motion by the state's controversial redistricting by the GOP-dominated legislature. "We'll focus most heavily on local and regional races," he says.

In Tampa, Bay News 9 is ready to offer wall-to-wall coverage if there's a rerun of the state's ballot-counting controversies that plagued 2000's presidential race. If there no battle over the ballot, News 9 has plenty of backup coverage to drive Tuesday's viewership.

Regional operations aim to hook political junkies with updates on nearly every state and local race—results that TV stations miss because the bulk of their Election Night results come from national network feeds. "We'll provide numbers for every single race in New England from dogcatcher on up," says Iris Adler, executive editor of New England Cable News, which serves Boston and 890 other cities in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. The torrent of data will crawl all night long on NECN's "L-graphic," which runs on the left side and bottom of the screen.

NECN, which is owned by Comcast and Hearst, will post reporters at the headquarters for tight major state races, such as the dead-even race for New Hampshire governor between GOP incumbent Craig Benson and Democrat John Lynch.

The regional channels aren't banking on a simple one-night bump in the ratings, however. Throughout the 2004 campaign season, they've rolled out a slew of segments intended to differentiate themselves from local broadcasters and the national cable nets. "The contentiousness of this election has accentuated in our viewers' minds how much more measured and tempered our coverage is compared with the more boisterous and over-the-top coverage we've seen from the national cable nets," says News 8 Austin's Benschoter.

Comcast's CN8, because of a huge footprint stretching from Maryland to Maine, will focus more on the presidential race than most other regional nets but is trying to differentiate itself with a strong lineup of regional politicos and analysts, including Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.).

The cable giants operating the regional nets don't break out profitability figures for channels, but the ratings seem to be bumping up ad revenue. The election-year boost hasn't been strong enough to save some regional channels in markets suffering a general ad slump. Belo Corp. pulled out of its Houston, San Antonio and Charlotte partnerships with Time Warner, forcing the two Texas channels to shut down.

Media Audit Co-Chairman Bob Jordan says that, in all markets, the success of the regional network depends on corporate backing from the home office: "The parent companies' support is a big factor in the success of regional channels."