SANTA ANA — Over the past several months, a cramped suite of rooms in the Orange County Register building here has been transformed into a gleaming warren of sophisticated computer and video equipment.
Walls are lined with new television monitors, videotape editing machines, computer graphics generators and picture storage units. Specially equipped Macintosh computers sit atop every desk. Robotic television cameras survey the studio set.
If all goes according to plan, this expensive ensemble will go live on Sept. 17, beaming an ambitious experiment in local television news to 190,000 Orange County cable subscribers. The service, dubbed Orange County Newschannel, will be the second in the nation to offer 24-hour local news on cable television, and Freedom Newspapers Inc. is betting an estimated $10 million that it will be a hit.
OCN represents more than just a new cable service. It also marks the opening of another front in the ongoing news war between Freedom, which owns the Register and a chain of Orange County community newspapers, and Times Mirror Co., which owns The Los Angeles Times and Dimension Cable Services.
Media analysts and others familiar with the project praise Freedom's initiative, but caution that OCN has a number of marketing, journalistic, and organizational hurdles to clear. Freedom must create an interesting program, persuade local cable operators to carry the service, persuade large numbers of advertisers to buy commercial time and build an effective partnership between the Register and OCN.
"Obviously it has some attractive potential benefits (for Freedom), and if it takes off it will have major benefits," said Tom Adams, a newspaper analyst with Paul Kagan Associates, a media research firm in Carmel. "But it's going to be tough to make much money."
OCN's strategy hinges on the idea that Orange County, which lacks a major over-the-air television channel of its own, is given short shrift by local news broadcasts originating in Los Angeles. Alan J. Bell, president of Freedom's broadcasting division, says the absence of local television has created a tremendous amount of "anger and frustration" among both viewers and advertisers, thus priming the market for OCN.
"This is a niche that's crying to be filled," agreed Jim Bequette, western region vice president at Comcast Cablevision in Seal Beach, one of the local cable systems that has already agreed to carry OCN. "There is very little Orange County-centered news on television."
This theory is already being tested by News 12 Long Island, the only other 24-hour local news service in the country. Like Orange County, Long Island is an affluent, heavily populated suburb that has an identity separate from a large, nearby city, yet remains largely dependent on city-based media.
OCN's most important early challenge may be persuading reluctant cable operators--including Dimension Cable, which has over 110,000 subscribers in affluent south Orange County--to put the program on their systems.
Thus far, Paragon Cable, Comcast Cablevision, Rossmoor Electric, Community Services Cable, and Rancho Santa Margarita Cable have agreed to air OCN, according to Kenneth D. Tiven, the veteran television news executive hired to run the channel.
With two large operators and three small ones signed up, OCN will have access to about 190,000 of an estimated 460,000 cable households in Orange County. Tiven said contracts are pending with several other companies that would bring the total to 250,000.
Bell is confident that "if we have a good product, we will be on every system, because the public will demand it." He offers an attractive package: OCN will be provided to cable companies free of charge for the first 10 years, and the local operators will also receive two minutes per hour of advertising time.
Still, OCN may have a tough time signing up all the cable firms. Times Mirror-owned Dimension Cable poses a special problem because of the heated competition between The Times and Register. Leo Brennan, vice-president and general manager of Dimension, said no decision on OCN will be made until after the service is launched.
Los Angeles Times officials are sensitive about the news channel, which will compete with The Times for advertising dollars and serve as a promotional vehicle for a competing newspaper. The Times in May refused to run a full-page advertisement for OCN, a decision that was sharply criticized by Freedom and several newspaper analysts.
The Times is also pursuing a limited cable television news project of its own through a joint venture with KCAL-TV. The Los Angeles television station produces 4 1/2-minute Orange County news spots based on stories provided by The Times Orange County Edition, and those briefs are inserted into Cable News Network's Headline News Service twice every hour.