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First O.C. Cable News Channel to Debut Sept. 17 : Media: Start-up of TV operation will open another front in the ongoing war between Freedom Newspapers Inc. and Times Mirror Co.

September 09, 1990|JONATHAN WEBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lawrence M. Higby, president of the Times Orange County Edition, said the KCAL venture was "the only response we envision at this time" to the OCN launch. Higby, who previously served as an executive with Times Mirror Cable Television, added, "Contrary to what Orange County Newschannel says, more local news is not one of the things that comes up in terms of cable viewers' desires."

OCN may also be concerned about a different cable project: a full-time Orange County news service being considered by Copley/Colony Cable, a joint venture of La Jolla-based Copley Newspapers and Providence, R.I.-based Colony Communications. Copley Colony owns or operates cable systems serving over 70,000 Orange County households.

Bruce Clark, president of Colony Communications, said the company is still pursuing the project, but declined further comment.

Cable operators say they have other reasons to be wary of OCN. "We see a local news channel as eating into our ad sales," said Steve Everett, general manager of Cablevision of Orange. "They're going to be knocking on the same doors."

Many cable companies view local advertising sales as their key source of revenue growth in coming years.

Bell said OCN will receive a boost from the current political climate in the cable business. The cable industry is under fire for rising rates and poor service, and providing more local programming is one means of deflecting such criticism.

OCN has launched a print and radio advertising campaign urging cable subscribers to contact their cable companies and request the news channel. OCN has also contacted public officials in many communities, providing them with information and a video touting the public benefits of true Orange County TV news.

OCN clearly hopes that Dimension, Copley/Colony and other systems that don't sign up will find themselves under public pressure to do so. Dimension faces added pressure because Times Mirror owns a newspaper that serves the same area, and any suggestion that it was hindering the development of other news operations could have political and regulatory consequences.

Higby called OCN's lobbying of cable subscribers and local politicians a "questionable tactic," and characterized the news channel as an attempt by Freedom "to protect its (the Register's) local advertising base at the expense of cable operators and small local newspapers."

But Bell countered that OCN would help local cable companies in the same way that broadcast television networks help local affiliate stations. "A rising tide lifts all boats," he said. "A network can afford a level of production that an affiliate cannot afford, and the value of the (advertising) time is enhanced. They need each other."

The OCN programming will feature more in-depth stories than a typical TV news program, Tiven said, though major stories will be repeated frequently in the fashion of all-news radio stations. He added that OCN is developing a novel format that will attempt to "bring the viewer inside the news-gathering process."

OCN hopes to break new ground by using live computer graphics on the air. Traffic reports, for example, will feature computerized road maps that automatically display alternate routes when the traffic reporter enters information on an accident.

OCN will have some national and international news, but Bell says such coverage will be sparing and will always be done with an eye toward the Orange County impact.

Some are skeptical of OCN's ability to keep the program interesting. "There just aren't that many stories out there," said Calvin Brack, general manager of KDOC-TV in Anaheim, a UHF broadcast station that produces a half-hour evening news show for Orange County. "I think they'll have real problems."

But others say OCN should prove very popular. "The people are there, the market is there, the news is there," said Warren Cereghino, news director at KTLA in Los Angeles. "What they're doing is very smart."

High-tech equipment--combined with the absence of unions--will allow OCN to operate with fewer technical personnel than comparable operations. OCN has a staff of around 70 people--Tiven would not give a precise figure--compared with 130 at News 12 Long Island.

Bell said these efficiencies would keep operating costs below those of News 12, which spends more than $10 million annually. People familiar with OCN estimate capital costs at $5 million to $7 million, with several million more for other start-up-related expenses.

OCN will also gain some efficiencies from having the news gathering resources of the Register at its disposal. Tiven downplays the importance of the Register and says newspaper reporters will be used mainly as expert commentators in the fashion of ABC's "Nightline." "We don't need as much help as people think we do," he said.

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