ABC putting news at your fingertips

Network using Web to expand coverage of the conventions

Election 2004

September 03, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Just before 7 p.m., Peter Jennings stands on the floor of Madison Square Garden and begins to speak into a hand-held microphone. As delegates to the Republican National Convention mill around him, a few snapping pictures, he offers a brief description of the day's news and foreshadows the speeches by backers of President Bush to come. As ABC's half-hour-long World News Tonight draws to an end, Jennings is appearing live before millions of television viewers.

A few seconds later, the dapper anchor, after smoothing invisible creases in his blazer and adjusting his trademark pocket square, faces the camera and starts to speak again. Now, Jennings can forget about the time, but his broadcast will reach only tens, or perhaps hundreds of thousands of Americans. It is part of ABC News Now, an experimental service that offers seemingly limitless political coverage to a select group of Americans - whenever, wherever, and even however they want to view it.

"I'm having a terrific time," Jennings says later, off the air. "It's a hugely important venture."

Indeed, ABC News Now is being hailed by some media professionals as the next big thing in delivering the news, a development potentially as significant as the emergence of cable news two decades ago.

Right now, ABC News Now can be seen only by those people who own digital televisions, subscribe to high-speed Internet services from AOL, Comcast or Yahoo, or own specialized cell phones from Sprint. Small hand-held Internet devices, such as BlackBerrys or Palm Pilots, are likely to carry it too someday soon - assuming ABC News Now survives past Election Day.

And that means, sometime in the near future, you may call up ABC News reports at your convenience as you wait for a doctor's appointment, ride a bus to a friend's house, or take a break from poring over spreadsheets at work.

"Listen, one of the reasons people don't watch television anymore is that they're nowhere near a television set when we come on," Jennings says. "If interesting political news and discussions are available to people on computers in their offices, or phones when they're sitting in a railroad station, we may encourage people to take more of an interest in politics."

Jennings himself has been disappointed by the way his network and its competitors cover politics. They're too stingy with their time, he says.

On Monday, the first night of the Republican convention that ended yesterday, none of the three major broadcast networks - ABC, CBS and NBC - carried any speakers live. Each network broadcast at least an hour of the nights that followed.

"I would think it a tragedy if the networks ever neglected the conventions," Jennings says. "The political importance of the conventions has been pre-empted by the primary season. We in television use free airwaves. There's absolutely no reason we shouldn't cover these conventions every year and consider it a privilege.

"This new technology enables us not only to do it, but bring to bear - in a way that I think we won't be able to in the newscasts anymore - the full expertise of our news team."

Drawing interest

The approach is drawing interest inside the media, even if the greater public is not yet wired for such multimedia fare.

"Clearly, this is a strategic investment in the future of always-on, digital, 24-hour on-demand media," says Andrew Nachison, director of the Media Center, a Reston, Va., think tank that studies the implications of technological innovation in the news industry. "ABC can point to its News Now experiment as a step forward - something that is technically and programmatically more ambitious."

But some critics suggest the creation of the service proves that the original networks simply aren't fulfilling their civic responsibilities to cover the news. "They're not getting the time that they think they deserve for important news coverage," says University of Miami broadcast journalism professor Sam Roberts, a former foreign editor for CBS News. "It's really too bad what's happening to the network news divisions. They're really a shell of what they used to be."

"It's a joke, an abrogation of their own public interest obligation," says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, an advocacy group that opposes the granting of new digital channels to the networks. "They should be ashamed of it. They have a broadcast network they can put that on."

ABC News executives say, in response, that they are trying to respond creatively to the realities of the modern media world.

Because of greater competition from cable, Web sites and even video games, the big three broadcast networks are no longer assured of audience loyalty. As they look to sustain profits, network chiefs are increasingly reluctant to turn over prime-time terrain to such events as conventions, during which ratings sag and they often forgo advertising.

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