Is Bay News 9 Bright House's secret weapon?
In the cable TV war of Tampa Bay between Bright House Networks and Verizon, does a 24-hour local news channel like Bright House's Bay News 9 matter? You better believe it.
In strict business terms, Bay News 9 is a differentiator, meaning you only get it if you subscribe to Bright House and not to Verizon's newer FiOS TV service. In community terms, for those who have been in the Tampa Bay area awhile, Bay News 9 has evolved nicely from a look-at-this-car-crash and look-at-this-fire style of area reporting to a mature and generally smart look at how Tampa Bay operates.
And though I can't swear to it, there may be a few hours each day when news anchor Al Ruechel is not on the air. (Ruechel photo courtesy of Bay News 9.)
I wrote at length about the terrific battle between smaller, private Bright House and the far larger Verizon in Sunday's St. Petersburg Times. The response from readers focused mostly on two topics: first, Verizon's FiOS TV has a lot of admirers among its subscribers for its sharp picture quality, and second, Verizon's legacy of service and billing problems continues to be a sore point with many. I specifically noted that while Bright House makes hay by touting its established Bay News 9, Verizon's area chief, Michelle Robinson (in photo), noted Verizon has a big edge ahead because its Verizon Wireless cell phone system (and customer base) is tops in the country and will become a key tool in pushing entertainment services to wireless devices -- a big trend. Bright House currently lacks a wireless business. Disclosure: St. Petersburg Times reporters appear from time to time on Bay News 9 to talk about their stories, Bay News 9 cites the Times as a news partner, and the Times has provided physical space in some of its regional bureaus for Bay News 9 reporters.
So it is interesting that today's Wall Street Journal has a story (subscription required) headlined "Local TV Is New Weapon" which says cable companies with their own Bay-News-9-like, hyperlocal news channels find them to be a strong marketing tool. The story also says Verizon realizes that and is planning a local news service of its own in at least some of its markets. John Harrobin, vice president of digital media at Verizon, is quoted in the Journal piece saying, "Local-interest stories are the ones that people cling to and watch." And he notes a version of the Verizon local channel available in Maryland and Northern Virginia ranks in the top fifth by viewers of the 350 channels the company offers, despite Verizon's ample menu of high-definition programming.
Verizon plans to starts its own local TV channel this summer in New York City to become more competitive with local TV news channels against Time Warner and CableVision systems. Where Verizon does have a local TV channels, it's called FiOS1. And this is not just a tool for Verizon. This week, Time Warner's introducing its own local TV news channel in the Buffalo, N.Y., market to help it fight against Verizon there.
Will Verizon take the plunge in the Tampa Bay market and go head to head with Bright House's Bay News 9? Yes and no. Verizon tells me it's likely it will offer a local TV "news" channel but it will be, in my words, "News Lite" with segments like "Weather on the 1s" and "Traffic on the 5s." But actual news anchors and news reporters? Nope, because that's expensive and is a big commitment. But cute features about area happenings? Most likely. This is a competition sure to keep on evolving.
(Photo of Verizon's Michelle Robinson by Martha Rial of the St. Petersburg Times.)
-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist