CNN battles Euro news rivals

Newsie regionalized services to stay above the competish

LONDON — Intensified by 9/11 and the war in Iraq, the competition among newsies in Europe is heating up — and CNN is looking over its shoulder at hard-charging rivals.

But while CNN is taking a battering from Fox News in the U.S., its international feed is still the pan-Euro leader, per annual audience research from Dutch-based EMS published this month. To maintain that advantage, and its profitability, the newsie has regionalized its services.

“Since the early 1990s, CNN Intl. has been profitable and we remain respectably profitable,” says Chris Cramer, president of CNN Intl. Networks.

“We invest millions of dollars each year to regionalize because the audience is very sophisticated and we wanted to make CNN relevant to the audiences it is broadcasting to. That decision was made not in response to competition, but we are determined to stay out in front.”

CNN Intl. has a daily reach of 4.3% across Europe compared with rivals Euronews at 3.9%, BBC World at 1.6% and CNBC at 1.2%.

“Our investment in making our news offering international and relevant is clearly paying dividends,” adds Tony Maddox, senior VP CNN Intl., Europe/Middle East/Africa.

“It is gratifying to see CNN as the No. 1 European news brand, particularly in such a competitive marketplace. We have increased the gap between ourselves and our nearest competitor to 11 percentage points, which is a very substantial lead.”

But competition has mushroomed since CNN Intl. launched its regional feeds in 1997. It now vies for viewers with, among others, BBC News 24 in the U.K., TF1’s LCI in France, Germany’s N24 and Spain’s Canal 24 Horas.

TF1’s LCI, France’s most watched round-the-clock service, Canal Plus’ i-Tele and Euronews have all gained audience share in the past six months. The war in Iraq and, closer to home, a series of disruptive strikes prompted the French to switch over to news channels.

Pan-regional players like Euronews, CNBC Europe and BBC World are also chipping away at the ad market, which is why CNN began launching domestic services with European partners.

CNN now offers local-language services in Spanish, Turkish and German and has a stake in the Teutonic newsie N-TV.

The footprint of BBC World, the Beeb’s commercially funded international news, extends to 255 million homes in over 200 countries. But the service is not profitable — it cost the BBC £14 million ($22 million) last year and is unlikely to turn a profit for the foreseeable future.

Says BBC’s head of TV news Roger Mosey: “What we picked up in our feedback from viewers is that CNN is seen as American, but to be fair they have invested heavily to regionalize their service. BBC World is seen to be offering a more balanced assessment. We want to develop that because we don’t want to be seen as just having a Western view.”

BBC News 24, the pubcaster’s domestic rolling news service, came late to the game. It still attracts a relatively small audience, but is narrowing the gap with its main competitor Sky News despite arguments that the pubcaster should not be spending viewer license fees to provide a similar news service.

The latest BBC annual report put the production spend on BBC News 24 at $38 million for 2002-03. But this figure excluded $30 million of newsgathering costs and a $12 million that had been allocated to “central costs.”

The granddaddy of domestic 24-news services in the U.K., Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News, launched in 1989 as Europe’s first 24-hour news channel. It is the market leader in the U.K. and has a loyal following of expats in Europe.

Innovation has always been viewed as a critical factor at Sky News, and the launch of Sky Digital has enabled the channel to steal a significant march on its competitors.

In Germany, public interest in all-news channels has doubled over the last three years, mostly to the benefit of newcomer N24. Part of the ProSiebenSat.1 group, it launched in January 2000 as the second local commercial news channel after N-TV.

“N-TV back then had a ratings share each one of us has today, so there’s quite a viewer potential that has been tapped since,” says N24 spokesman Thorsten Puetsch.

N-TV and N24 reach 0.7% and 0.6% respectively in the 14-49 demo. N24 gained ground with younger viewers, its profile defined by a preference for docs versus N-TV’s reliance on stock market news.

In Spain, pubcaster RTVE launched Canal 24 Horas in 1997, using its expensive news bureaus.

CNN and Sogecable launched joint venture Spanish-language channel CNN Plus in 1999 to tap into the domestic market even though the European feed of CNN Intl. is available in Spain. Not wanting to be left out, commercial web Antena 3 introduced A3n24 soon after.

(Alison James in Paris, Christian Kohl in Cologne and John Hopewell in Madrid contributed to this report.)

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