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ON TV

Channel has its own program for success

Between 7 and 8 each night, Bill Boyd III clicks on the television for some entertainment with dinner. There's WCVB's "Chronicle." Too nostalgic, he says.

The syndicated showbiz news on WBZ and WHDH? Too much fluff.

Comcast's low-profile cable network CN8 -- which airs "Nitebeat" in this time period -- is just right.

"CN8 provides a different kind of programming that other local media outlets aren't producing," says Boyd, a 34-year-old resident of Manchester, N. H. " `Nitebeat' has an emphasis on politics, entertainment, sports, and human-interest stories. It's almost like `Chronicle,' but `Chronicle' caters to my mom and dad's crowd. `Nitebeat' caters to people my age. It's more eclectic and modern. The issues reflect what people my age are talking about."

Since Comcast acquired AT&T Broadband last year, the Philadelphia-based cable company has been trying to make inroads with New England subscribers by producing two television shows in Brookline: "Nitebeat," hosted by Barry Nolan, and "Sports Pulse," with Ed Berliner. Last Sunday it launched a third show, out of Norwell, "New England Newsmakers," featuring former WLVI-TV (Channel 56) reporter Sarah Zapp.

The network also airs 22 1/2 hours a week of programming produced in Philadelphia, including news, talk, and cooking shows. All told, CN8 reaches 6.2 million East Coast homes.

Both "Nitebeat" and "Sports Pulse" are one-hour weeknight programs featuring interviews, mostly with New Englanders. Critics say the programs are too long and sometimes seem low-budget, unpolished, even hokey. Berliner, for example, spent more than a minute -- an eternity on television -- talking about doughnuts with Boston Bruins captain Joe Thornton on a recent show. (To be fair, the duo then talked for an even more remarkable seven minutes about hockey.)

And on a lark, Nolan invited a Slovenian professor of philosophy, Slavoj Zizek, onto "Nitebeat" to discuss his book "The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity." Nolan says, "The book was impenetrable, and he went on a rant that was totally entertaining."

Some viewers, like Dedham's Erin Dunne, 33, love the quirkiness of the shows. "Ed Berliner is so funny! He asks crazy questions and has a high energy level without being annoying. He seems like a real sports enthusiast with a lot of knowledge."

Other observers are unimpressed. Jim Thistle, director of the broadcast journalism program at Boston University, points out that WGBH-TV (Channel 2) is already broadcasting a nightly issues show, "Greater Boston," and that NECN has "NewsNight." He says, "I don't know what purpose `Nitebeat' serves."

CN8's New England general manager, Ken Botelho, says he's hoping to fill a void left by many local stations, which have canceled most of their public-affairs shows, limited their extended sports coverage to late-night programs, and turned to syndicated programs for entertainment news.

"You won't find many local commercial stations doing what we're doing," Botelho says. "They did these things in their heyday. Now we can do them and, we hope, generate local interest.

"We hosted a `Nitebeat' from the Nantucket Film Festival. We went to the Boston Music Awards, and we're doing a one-hour special in Salem on Halloween. We've had top guests on `Sports Pulse,' from Red Sox owner John Henry to Patriots owner Bob Kraft. On that show, they got 30 minutes to talk. How many other local shows have that kind of time?"

So far, the network -- which came on the air in New England in May -- has gotten low ratings. In an average week, CN8 says, 87,500 cable TV viewers in Greater Boston tune in during prime time. (Comcast has 2.2 million New England subscribers.)

Leslie Gross, a CN8 spokeswoman, says the network is "pleased with the results, considering we have been on the air in Boston for five months."

The network is using a simple strategy to boost its numbers. Channel 3, where CN8 is found in most Greater Boston homes, is a default channel, meaning cable subscribers' sets automatically tune there when they are turned on. (In some towns, the technology and channel setup don't allow this, and CN8 may actually show up on channel 8 or 9. Gross says the default mechanism is for "branding purposes," so viewers will be exposed to Comcast programming.)

Nolan, who became known as the cohost of WBZ-TV's "Evening Magazine" in the 1980s, left a job as a national correspondent for the syndicated celebrity newsmagazine "Extra" to take the "Nitebeat" gig. At 56, he says, he felt he was too old to be "wrangling over a spot on the red carpet for an eight-second sound bite . . . with people who look very much like my children."

Says Nolan: "I've learned all I want to know about Ben and Jen. Here, I've been able to talk to independent filmmakers, authors, a street juggler, and Ben and Jerry, who have a new organic ice cream out. I love doing this. We're able to do whatever we want, and the expectations are: Please don't embarrass us."

Berliner, who left his post as anchor of Fox Sports' Rocky Mountain region in Denver, says he couldn't resist the chance to cover sports in a city like Boston. With an hour to fill each night, Berliner has broken the mold, covering high school and college sports and even the physically gifted performers in the circus. One night he donned hockey equipment so Bruin P. J. Stock could teach him how to fight on the ice. "He had me in a headlock. It was a hysterical moment," Berliner says.

Zapp, a former anchor at the NBC affiliate in Little Rock, Ark., has yet to make her mark locally. She was a freelance reporter for WLVI for just a month before accepting the "Newsmakers" assignment. The 30-minute Sunday night program will bring together regional politicians, community leaders, celebrities, and others in the news to discuss current events -- sometimes in a round-table format, sometimes one on one.

"The reason I wanted to leave local news was because I was spending eight hours on a story only to see a 30-second report broadcast," Zapp says. "This show is going to be very conversational. People will have a chance to finish their sentences."

Zapp knows she's starting from scratch. "The challenge is going to be convincing people that this is worth their time. This is a great experiment in what people want."

Suzanne Ryan can be reached at sryan@globe.com.

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