CBS plans 24-hr. news cable web

If CBS honchos have their way, news division superstars Mike Wallace, Dan Rather and Connie Chung will anchor its new 24-hour news cable network.

CBS is keeping mum.

But a confidential 19-page Eye web memorandum obtained by Daily Variety spells out the details of an all-news cable network that would combine CBS’ national news operation with the news programming of its seven owned stations and approximately 200 affiliates. The working blueprint is a bold gambit that could eventually put CBS in a position to challenge CNN.

But CBS won’t have an easy go of it. The proposed web could easily cost as much as $ 100 million to start and $ 30 million a year to run. CBS has been shopping the plan around and some cable operators are balking at the subscription fees necessary to put the all-news network in the black. Also, the plan may be too technologically elaborate to pull off.

Indeed, the plan is nothing if not ambitious. The new cable net would include reruns of the old Edward R. Murrow series “Person to Person,” half-hour newsmagazine versions of “48 Hours” and “West 57th,” and time-shifting of all of CBS’ regularly scheduled news shows.

At the price CBS is demanding from cable operators, the so-called CBS Public Affairs Channel would become a huge revenue generator for CBS within four years. A 30-million subscriber base would harvest $ 90 million, about $ 72 million of which would flow into CBS’ coffers and $ 18 million into the pockets of its O&Os and affiliates.

But CBS has to get two major cable players to go along with the plan: Tele-Communications Inc. and Time Warner. “TCI and Time Warner may resist going along,” said an insider familiar with the plan. “Remember, they are both major shareholders inCNN and this channel would be a direct competitor to CNN, with something CNN doesn’t have — a roster of marquee name anchors.”

No cable operator has signed up yet for CBS Public Affairs. A number of MSO executives, who requested anonymity, say the yearly fee of $ 3 a subscriber that CBS is asking is the main stumbling block.

“News has a relatively limited audience — we’re not talking ‘Murder, She Wrote’ here,” said one MSO programmer.

Early response from the cable community to the Eye web’s plan may be lukewarm , but several CBS affils are cheering the effort.

“I like the idea of news stories on my station getting out to as many eyes and ears as we can reach,” said Jeff Rosser, general manager of KDFW, CBS’s Dallas affil. He and his counterparts see the regional component of Pub Affairs as a way to generate revenues from existing resources.

But some CBS affils are raising awkward questions about their web’s proposed cable venture.

Glenn Wright, general manager of KIRO, CBS’ Seattle affil, said, “I’d be real concerned if a news story we originated was coming in to my market on a cable network the same day.”

Plans for Pub Affairs are still fluid. According to one cable-system executive who has had a number of conversations with CBS over the last few weeks , CBS has already begun talking about scaling back the regional and local elements in the plan as outlined in the memo.

CBS has had to go through the agony of starting a new cable network from scratch because the other three broadcast networks tossed in the towel earlier, in effect acknowledging that retransmission consent was not going to shower money on their 0&0s.

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