Net to bow digital web for political coverage

The debate over whether political conventions are even newsworthy took a surprise turn Monday when ABC News announced it is launching a 24-hour digital news channel that will provide gavel-to-gavel coverage of the upcoming Democratic and Republican confabs, anchored by Peter Jennings.

If they are so inclined, ABC affils can air the news feed on their secondary digital channels. Most affils have carriage deals with cable operators to carry such channels.

Venture was announced as newly installed Disney-ABC Television prexy Anne Sweeney opened the net’s two-day sesh at the Television Critics Assn. summer press tour in Los Angeles.

Fate wasn’t necessarily on the side of the new management team at the Alphabet. ABC Primetime Entertainment topper Steve McPherson couldn’t be at TCA in person because of his honeymoon, which was planned long before he got the gig this spring. McPherson, with a shot of the Champs Elysees behind him, took questions from critics via a satellite hookup.

But the satellite hookup played a cruel trick on Sweeney when it started rapidly scrolling clips of the hit FX series “Nip/Tuck” — including a very racy sex scene.

“Some of my new friends,” said Sweeney, making a quick recovery.

As for NBC’s charge over the weekend that Fox blatantly takes reality show ideas from other nets — including ABC’s new fall show “Wife Swap”– McPherson seconded the Peacock’s point. “They will steal it plain and simple,” McPherson said.

Fox next week bows “Trading Spouses,” a copycat version of “Wife Swap”; latter skein isn’t slated to premiere until the fall. McPherson said there are no plans to move up the premiere date for “Swap,” though a final decision hasn’t been made.

He also ruled out changing the title of “Wife Swap,” which some affils have questioned.

McPherson, as Sweeney did, reiterated that he is not being micro-managed by top Disney execs Michael Eisner and Robert Iger. He said the new fall sked, along with shows slated for midseason, and are a solid step in the right direction for the network’s primetime lineup.

“Bob and Michael have made it clear that I’ve got at least until August (to turn the net around),” McPherson joked.

McPherson showed off his deadpan style a little later when a reporter asked about the now-legendary saga of “CSI,” which McPherson developed at Touchstone for CBS. Disney decided to bail on “CSI,” and when asked whether he agreed with the call, McPherson needed just two words to answer.

“Uh, no,” he said, prompting a wave of laughter from the audience of journos and ABC execs.

24 hour net ’til election

Following McPherson and Sweeney, ABC News prexy David Westin joined Jennings, “Nightline” host Ted Koppel and “This Week” host George Stephanopoulos onstage to discuss the digital news channel, which will remain a 24/7 operation through the November general election.

“I can’t think of a more important election,” said Jennings, longtime anchor of “World News Tonight.”

Jennings is smiling broadly these days after overtaking leader “Nightly News With Tom Brokaw” in the demo during the May sweeps.

Westin said roughly 80% of the country would be covered by the digital channel via cable. He would not give a pricetag but said ABC and its affils have been talking about launching a secondary digital news net for a year. Channel will also be available online for a nominal monthly fee.

Unlike NBC News, which has two cable news net sisters, ABC News and CBS News have no 24/7 outlet to provide continuous coverage of events. At one point, ABC was in merger talks with CNN, but those plans were abandoned.

Jennings push

Decision to provide gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Democratic convention in Boston, which gets under way July 26, and the Republican convention in New York at the end of August was made last week, at the urging of Jennings.

For years, nets have wrestled with how much time to give to the conventions, which some say have become little more than infomercials for the political parties. During the 1996 Republican convention, Koppel walked off the convention floor in protest of the lack of news. But on Monday he said that this is a far different sort of election and that ABC’s coverage will focus heavily on the issues at hand, not just the candidates.

“We will be covering politics in the middle of the age of terrorism and in the middle of the Iraq war,” Jennings said.

Digital channel bows July 26 and will be on the air through Nov. 2, Election Day.

One hour in primetime

ABC, CBS News and NBC News are planning to provide one hour of primetime coverage most nights during both conventions, allowing viewers to see the major speeches, including Bill Clinton’s.

During the Democratic confab in Boston, special news editions will air at 10 p.m. ET on July 26, 28 and 29. During the Republican convention in New York, coverage will begin at 10 p.m. on Aug. 31, Sept. 1 and 2. Coverage will be led by the three network news anchors, along with top political anchors.

Broadcast morning news shows, as well as Sunday morning public affairs shows, also will focus heavily on the conventions. Same for the cable news nets, which are ready-made to provide round-the-clock reporting and commentary.

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