New York As Peter Jennings opened gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Republican National Convention one evening, he posed an unconventional question to a Texas delegate: Is it true Republicans dress better than Democrats?
Minutes later, the ABC News anchor asked a woman in the front row of the Missouri delegation how she got such a good seat. Then he posed for a souvenir photo with a Wisconsin delegate -- on the air.
This wasn't broadcast on regular TV.
It's part of a 24-hour-a-day news experiment available only on the Internet, wireless phones and digital TV. The network considers "ABC News Now" the future of television news -- even if relatively few people are watching.
"I'm totally realistic about the audience," Jennings said in an interview. "I similarly realize ... we are on the edge of another technological change. As people continue to get news in different forms, it's foolish if we didn't take advantage of the new platforms."
"ABC News Now" may be the future of television. It also could flop. ABC executives are committed to it only through Election Day.
ABC News began a thrice-weekly Internet show with Sam Donaldson in 1999 and expanded it to daily within a year -- only to cancel it. Bernard Gershon, general manager for the ABC News Digital Media Group, called the 20-minute program "ahead of its time." Video quality was poor then, and high-speed Internet access was limited to roughly 5 percent of Americans online, compared to half today.
In March 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq, ABC launched a forerunner to "ABC News Now" and charged a subscription fee. Customers of America Online Inc., Comcast Corp. and a few other Internet providers got the service for free. Mobile phone users later could watch through Sprint Corp.'s MobiTV.
Meantime, Jennings was frustrated with the diminishing airtime networks were devoting to political conventions and offered to anchor them gavel-to-gavel on the Internet when he wasn't on regular TV.
Besides convention saturation, the "ABC News Now" lineup features original shows on politics and business, expanded segments from already-aired ABC news programs and hours of breaking news and updates.
ABC estimates that 36 million people have access over the Internet and another 6.5 million through digital TV, including cable subscribers. The potential wireless phone audience is a speck by comparison.
Despite the potential, actual viewers are rare. During the conventions, the nightly Internet audience was in the hundreds of thousands over the course of an evening. And on a good day, "ABC News Now" has 6,000 viewers through AOL at any one time.
Michael Clemente, the program's executive producer, is unfazed. As the digital audience grows and television viewership declines the lines will eventually cross, he says.
"What was the first day of television versus radio?" Clemente asked.
Searching for right mix
Industry analysts -- and even rivals -- praise the gumption of ABC, which charges $4.95 per month to direct subscribers.
"Someone's going to find the formula, the right new way to cover the news," said David Bohrman, the CNN Washington bureau chief who used to run the dot-com era "netcasting" flameout Pseudo Programs Inc. "It'll be a little dose of what Pseudo does, a little dose of what ABC does."
Jon Klein, a former CBS News executive who heads the online video news service FeedRoom, described the ABC team as "smart people ... aggressive about pursuing opportunities wherever they think they can find them."
ABC's effort is driven in part by its lack of a cable channel. During the conventions, Tom Brokaw appeared on MSNBC when NBC was carrying entertainment.
There simply isn't enough space in cable boxes to start a traditional channel, said Tom Wolzien, senior media analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. So ABC is exploring all the new routes into homes it can.
ABC executives insist "ABC News Now" maintains the same journalistic standards as ABC television, but its experimental nature does offer creative freedom -- "ABC with an edge," as anchor Gigi Stone describes it.
"ABC News Now" has commercials, but they are so few that producers need not cut away at a specific time. Nor are producers constrained to half-hour programming blocks.
Peter Jennings spoke with Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., far longer than he could have on broadcast TV.
"It is nice for interviews to have time to develop," Jennings said. "I had a chance to talk about him and growing up in the 60s."
On Tuesday, Jennings devoted a half-hour to the roll call in which delegates extolled the virtues of their home states. It had little news value, but producers were willing to indulge Jennings.
"This is an experiment for us," he said. "I've been pretty much left alone to do it the way I want to do it."
|Details about availability and viewership of "ABC News Now":Internet: The channel is sold through ABCNews.com and RealNetworks Inc. and available for free through America Online Inc., Comcast Corp. and other providers that pay ABC. Some 36 million Internet users can get the service, the bulk through AOL, says ABC. The weekly audience for "ABC News Now" through AOL is in the tens of thousands. During the conventions, it had more than 200,000 viewers per evening -- and 500,000 on Thursday. Simultaneous viewership through AOL has been about 6,000 -- high for streaming video but minuscule compared with cable news channels.Digital television: Seventy ABC affiliates, including all 10 ABC-owned stations, now carry the channel over their digital frequencies, which for reception require a special TV tuner or digital cable service. It's not always easy to find -- one cable system has it on channel 730, another on 1512. Affiliates also sometimes break in with local programming. ABC says the digital channel serves about 65 percent of the country's population. Some 6.5 million people actually get the channel, but ABC says it has no idea how many are watching.Wireless: "ABC News Now" is Channel 5 on MobiTV, a streaming TV service available through Sprint PCS Vision. Sprint Corp. has 5 million PCS Vision customers, though not all pay $10 extra monthly to get MobiTV. Idetic Inc., which runs MobiTV, refused to provide subscription figures. ABC's Bernard Gershon admits the wireless audience is now "tiny, but will grow dramatically."|