Network: Ted's big adventure

Murdoch has one. Gates does, too. Now Turner has a premium online service. By Meg Carter

CNN, the 24-hour global television news network, has launched a premium online service, CNN Plus. It is the latest in a series of initiatives that CNN hopes will enhance its online presence; other plans include the introduction of local language content by early summer.

The aim is to grow the relevance of CNN's online service to different groups of users around the world, says Scott Woelfel, vice-president and editor-in-chief of CNN Interactive. "It won't be long before the use of online matches the number of cable-TV homes," he says. "People are doubling the time spent using the Internet each day."

According to a study published in November, US adults will spend 19 minutes a day online this year compared with a daily average of nine minutes in 1996. However, CNN also hopes better to serve users from other countries by working more closely with its 31 television news bureaux, 600 affiliated TV stations and regular roster of 3,500 journalists worldwide.

CNN Plus will act as an extension of the main CNN.com Web site launched in August 1995, Woelfel explains. It is divided into five sections: community, consumer, news plus, resources and games. Community hosts a chat session each week day with other users, newsmakers and CNN correspondents, while the consumer section offers news and advice. News Plus contains audio- streamed two-minute reports of top stories from CNN Radio.

Resources is a current affairs database. A unique feature is a "Media Search" engine, Woelfel claims. It uses search and preview software designed by the software company Magnifi to locate video clips, sound clips and images from all CNN Interactive online services which also include CNNfn.com, a financial news site, and AllPolitics.com, a US political news site run jointly with CNN's sister publication, Time magazine.

The games section includes Shockwave-based educational and topical games and a Java-based daily crossword.

While CNN.com is marketed as a site for breaking news, CNN Plus will hold archive material and background comment aimed at families, students and "news junkies" use from home. Like other CNN sites, it will carry advertising.

CNN is breaking even online thanks to advertising revenue generated by its three sites. The company estimates its combined online services are now attracting 25 million separate page views each week. Yet over the longer term, Woelfel is convinced subscription will be the larger revenue earner. While it is initially available free of charge, CNN Plus has been developed as a subscription premium service, available for around $20 a month.

Making people pay will require the introduction of added-value features, Woelfel explains. Just last month, CNN Interactive launched Reservation Desk, an online travel-booking service in partnership with Internet Travel Network which is directly linked to the travel section within CNN.com.

Local content is an inevitable next step, he believes: "We are pre-empting what we think will be a long-term shift in demand." First up will be Svenska CNN, a joint venture with Telia InfoMedia, a Swedish telecommunications and information services company. An editorial office for the online service will open shortly in Gothenburg.

Svenska CNN will comprise daily news summaries and headlines in Swedish combined with images, audio clips and video. International news and features material will be balanced with local content and linked to CNN.com, where users can access full-length stories in English.

"It will act as a blueprint for other local services planned around the world," Woelfel explains. CNN Interactive research shows Australia is the largest single source of online users from outside the US - accounting for just under 25 per cent. It is closely followed by Canada and the Netherlands, then Japan, Germany and the UK.

"Our longer-term plan is better to integrate our online services with the company's TV programming," he adds. "CNN TV can help drive Web use and vice versa." Following last year's Florida plane crash, TV coverage of the event cross-promoted CNN.com which carried greater detail, including the full passenger list. Web pages on the breaking news site now carry updated TV news headlines and "live on CNN" flags to direct browsers to TV coverage as a major story breaks.

Woelfel hopes this will give CNN Interactive an edge over its major competitor, MSNBC. The joint venture between Microsoft and US broadcaster NBC has suffered a lack of fast-breaking, topical information content, he claims.

Integration with TV, however, doesn't just mean news TV. Or the Internet. The company recently joined forces with PointCast Network, the Internet news network that appears instantly on computer screens in the form of a screensaver. It also sends headline news round the clock to pagers,0 following a distribution deal with the US paging system PageNetn

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