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Entrepreneur promises "the CNN of Tampa Bay'

Stuart Arnold had an idea nearly two decades ago that was good enough to make him a fortune.

A former advertising salesman, Arnold built from scratch the Auto Trader, a nationwide magazine of photo-illustrated classified ads. He sold it in 1988 to Cox Enterprises Inc., an Atlanta-based media chain, for undisclosed millions.

Now, at 58, he is comfortable enough to live full-time in his expansive Key West house or to while away his days cruising the Caribbean on his yacht.

Instead, Arnold is obsessive about coming up with the next big idea.

His latest pitch is called the Tampa Bay Newschannel. The concept is a 24-hour all-news cable television station that would cover an 11-county area along Florida's west coast.

"We intend to be the CNN of Tampa Bay," says Arnold from his office in the $13-million television studio complex he has assembled in a mid-Pinellas office park mainly for his video production company, CPN Television Inc.

Among Arnold's models for the concept are local cable news channels in areas including New York and Southern California.

"It's not fun to be driven," says Arnold. "But I don't want to sit with a pile of money on the table, do nothing and call myself an investor."

It was nearly two years ago that Arnold unveiled his last 24-hour cable network, the Auto Channel.

The project never got into first gear. After Arnold made the announcement, Cox informed the flamboyant entrepreneur that a network devoted to cars would violate his agreement with Cox not to compete against the Auto Trader.

The Tampa Bay Newschannel, which recently started hiring a staff, will face its own formidable obstacles.

A bill that recently passed Congress is likely to have a major impact on the relationships between cable operators and programers _ though it remains unclear exactly how. So cable companies are delaying decisions.

In the meantime, cable operators are being offered an abundance of programing but technologically face a shortage of capacity to carry more channels on their systems.

"Right now, channels are tight," said Brian Aungst, director of public affairs and programing for Vision Cable of Pinellas Inc. Still, Aungst said he is interested in seeing a proposal from Arnold.

Then there's the problem of starting a channel during a recession that would depend on advertising revenue, when competition for all accounts is particularly fierce.

"The whole advertising community is down right now," said Roger Holleger, general manager of Jones Intercable Inc. in Tampa.

But Holleger also said the news channel "deserves a good look on our part."

And there's the question of which interests Arnold would fulfill that are not already met by local television and radio stations, newspapers and magazines.

Arnold says he plans to distribute video cameras to 30 free-lance journalists around Central Florida and to pay them only for each story they turn in. He wants aggressive "news-seekers" in their communities.

"I want to do what the local access channel on cable systems was meant to do but hasn't," says Arnold. "We'll edit to just the most exciting couple of minutes of local government hearings."

Arnold says his stories will be more in-depth than other local television stations offer and more accessible than newspapers. "Many people we will reach can't read," says Arnold. "The only news they get is through TV."

Meanwhile, Arnold says, CPN will continue to operate as a one-stop shop for television production. Arnold says the company is not yet profitable but is close to earning money.

"As I get older, I see the door at the end of the tunnel," he says. "You want to leave something behind you. There's an excitement seeing something grow.

"A baby grows up to be a doctor. You want another to be a prince."