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Time Warner Enters The Fray

The questions I get asked most often these days (other than "is the check in the mail?") involve the big glass building on Morehead Street and the work going on inside it. Namely, "What do you hear about that Time Warner news thing? Is that still happening?" The answers are: I've heard a lot, and yes, it's very much happening. And for those who might be expecting a "Wayne's World" newscast, think again.

I had a visit with the two main folks running the show at what will be called News 14 Carolina, and took a tour of the construction site that will become some 25,000 square feet of newsroom facilities. Ron Miller, the general manager, and Jim Newman, the news director, are both WBTV refugees (and former co-workers of mine). They're beginning the blitz of starting a news operation from scratch that will begin 24-hour news broadcasts next spring.

The channel will reach the 375,000 TWC subscribers in a nine-county area, so even though ratings will be measured, it won't be boiling in the Charlotte ratings stewpot, up against WSOC-TV and the rest.

"No refrigerator magnets, no 'watch and win,' no sweeps," Newman says. "This will be CNN on a local level," Miller says. "It will put a face on Time Warner Cable in the community, and I think it'll take a little time for people to see that it's a legitimate newscast."

Somewhat like the CNN Headline News concept, the news content will not try to re-invent the wheel, it will be "the wheel." That is, a format precisely segmented into "very local" news, weather, traffic, sports, health reports, business news, and those wonderful commercial breaks. You know the drill, but viewers can expect the same content at the same time within every hour, and unlike Channels 3, 9, 18, 36, 10 and 55 in Charlotte, it won't be appointment television. You want local news at 3am? You got it.

It's also a venture that will include some cooperation with WCNC-TV, since its parent company, Belo, is a partner in the deal. That will likely mean some sharing of video and equipment, but not on-air personnel. News 14 Carolina is the latest effort in local news by Time Warner. There are also news operations in New York City, Orlando, and Tampa to name a few. Raleigh is also ramping up an operation to debut next year, and will be connected to Charlotte via fiber optics that will allow the two to trade video stories.

Judging by the piles of videotapes in Miller's office, News 14 Carolina is also hiring, beefing up to a total staff of about 90 people. In the current climate of hiring freezes, no pay raises, and layoffs in the broadcast and print industries, that's news in itself. But the people who will work in this news operation are going to be doing it differently from their cohorts elsewhere in town, all because of state-of-the-art tech stuff.

All reporters will need to know how to shoot video, most likely to be their own photographers ("one-man bands," as the lingo goes) and will be equipped with lightweight Sony cameras that use a small, audio-sized cassette. As Newman explains it, once a crew is back in the building, that tape will go directly to a server. In other words, it will be a digital, tapeless newsroom. That same reporter will be able to write the story, edit the video, and record audio tracks at the computer at his or her desk. Producers will write scripts, add on-screen graphics, and line up the shows at computers as well.

Anchors, the sometimes overweight simians in the newsrooms that create them, will be, er, different animals, too. "Anchors might be in the chair for 6 to 8 hours during the day, updating the news and ready for breaking news at any time," Miller explains. "The (news) content is the thing here, and our idea is not to produce a star system."

It all sounds very Futureworld, but how will the editorial philosophy differ from Charlotte's established big TV dogs?

Miller doesn't hesitate. "We'll do more local community news, things happening in neighborhoods that other stations don't cover. There's also business news to cover that most stations don't, and we'll look for bilingual reporters to bring us news about the Hispanic community here."

For viewers, let's also hope that arts and entertainment get their slice of "the wheel," as well as state government coverage, neglected to the point of invisibility by the other TV folks in town.

******

A TASTY SIDE DISH. . . The worst-kept TV secret in town is out, with the official announcement that Fox Sports is moving some of its act to Charlotte. It's revamping its Speedvision channel to include more NASCAR and is moving here, the home of much of the industry and its drivers.

All of this happened when Fox bought Speedvision this summer. Its new contract with NASCAR obviously created the need for more programming room for racing, and here it is. Speedvision staff will relocate here from Stamford, CT. No word on possible additional hires yet, though more shows will be produced in Charlotte, many of them at MediaComm, a production house, and studios in town, owned by the religious broadcasters that also own The Inspiration Channel.

For NASCAR fans, it will most likely give them more coverage, like qualifying days and races that NBC or Fox don't carry. The channel, to be re-named the Speed Channel, currently reaches over 45 million cable homes, and that number will undoubtedly rise. Good news for the QC.

No doubt red-faced but pressing on, Charlotte's big 3 TV stations got smacked last week by a national study of local newscasts. The Washington, DC-based Project for Excellence in Journalism does this study every year, examining newscast quality in a changing lineup of American cities. Charlotte was one of the cities in the mix for 2001, and yikes.

The city's top-rated newscast for over 10 years, WSOC-TV was dead last among all 43 stations in the research, scoring a big, fat "F" on its report card. The study talks about what we already know in this market. Channel 9 overemphasizes "breaking" news, crime, and the superficial stuff that I call "paper towel" stories. (Use 'em once, then toss out). WBTV did little better, rating a "D", and WCNC-TV was relatively respectable with a "C" grade.

Trust me, besides the yack about the study by some of the few journalists left in Charlotte's TV newsrooms, this study means nada. In fact, WSOC-TV head honcho Lee Armstrong, while obviously not happy, defended her station in the Charlotte Observer by saying that "I trust our viewers to make good judgments about what they see."

Lord, what does that say about the ever-shrinking pool of viewers that are watching? Not much, I'm afraid.

Or as one Channel 9 staffer remarked sarcastically to me, "The "F" could really stand for 'F*** you,' as long as we're making money." Ouch.

You can access the entire report at www.journalism.org.

Stay tuned, and count the ways you can be thankful after you polish off that bird. . .

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