CNN/SI pairing channels energy into sports information battle

Media Watch

December 12, 1996|By Milton Kent

ATLANTA -- When Time Warner chairman Gerald Levin and vice chairman Ted Turner symbolically launch CNN/SI at 8 tonight, they'll open the next chapter in the battle for a piece of the burgeoning sports news and information industry.

The hard work of turning the latest of the 24-hour, all-sports-news networks into a viable part of the market will begin and continue here in a newly constructed, 26,000-square-foot studio and newsroom just off the main CNN newsroom.

"I can't wait to get this thing going," said Jim Walton, a CNN senior vice president and the executive in charge of this hybrid channel, which blends the immediacy of CNN, the first all-news network, with the journalistic heft of Sports Illustrated, one of the leading sports magazines on the planet.

(The channel cannot be seen on any Baltimore area cable system.)

In theory, this channel -- the first venture of the newly merged Time Warner and Turner Broadcasting empire -- should be a lead-pipe cinch to be successful, and Walton and Steve Robinson, an SI senior editor who is in charge of CNN/SI's content, are sparing nothing to make it so.

For instance, the new channel will employ state-of-the-art technology, including a digital video retrieval and distribution system brought in from England that will allow producers, editors and anchors to work simultaneously on the same piece of tape, without actually touching the tape.

In addition, Sports Illustrated editors, writers and reporters will contribute heavily to the product, with behind-the-scenes and on-camera reporting. A studio has been installed at the magazine's New York headquarters to allow for live reports from the newsroom, and the concerns of staffers that their main product, the magazine, might be watered down have been allayed.

"The feeling was, this was the way to go, that for non-event sports programming, cable was the place to do it. And the next logical step for Sports Illustrated existing and competing in a world in which you have immediate delivery of sports news through all different sources was to get into the 24-hour-a-day business," said Robinson, a former pro football editor.

The project is, in today's terms, relatively inexpensive. Virtually all of the resources, from talent to technology, are already on hand.

And even if the Time Warner-Turner merger hadn't happened, executives say, this venture would have gone forward, but because it did, it makes all the more sense, especially as the company tries to get a stronger foothold in sports.

"You have to run that much faster to hold your place in line," said Steve Korn, CNN's chief operating officer. "It's almost analogous to a supermarket and the issue of shelf space. How many boxes of cereal do you have on the shelves as you try to maintain your market share and hopefully expand your market share? We're proud of our core brands, but we're using this to extend our brand."

But there are serious potholes in the road for CNN/SI. For one, there is ESPNEWS, which launched last month to generally good notices. In the perception of many, the two channels will battle for space on that grocery shelf to offer what is essentially the same product: sports news on demand.

Though neither Walton nor Robinson will directly criticize ESPNEWS nor NewSport, their predecessor, they both stress that, though the new ESPN product will air the same highlights on a repeating wheel during large chunks of the day, CNN/SI will provide 10 minutes of live updates each hour with stories during the rest of the time, giving viewers and cable operators something different.

The cable operators, in the short term, are the most important audience. They'll make the decision on whether to add the channel to systems that are largely filled to capacity.

ESPNEWS is seen in 1.5 million homes, a far cry from the 70 million that both ESPN and CNN are seen in, though a network spokesman said the new channel has commitments for up to 4 million homes. CNN/SI officials would not announce its subscriber number before launch, but industry observers believe that Time Warner, which operates a number of cable systems, will put pressure on its operators to get the new channel immediate exposure.

No Baltimore area cable operator is carrying either CNN/SI or ESPNEWS at launch, and there are no immediate plans to add either. However, the 11 p.m. CNN/SI broadcast will be simulcasted on CNN, as well as weekend shows at 1 a.m. and 8: 30 p.m., and the easiest way to see both channels for now will be through a satellite connection.

Will it work? No one knows for sure, but the competition should be fun.

Pub Date: 12/12/96

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