By Michael Pollick
Published: Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 1:00 a.m.
SARASOTA - SNN News 6, the Herald-Tribune's pioneering 24-hour television news station, will go dark tonight at midnight as managers seek additional investors.
The move comes after a deal months in the making fell apart when a key investor unexpectedly dropped out.
While the proposed new ownership group looks for another investor or investors to replace the one who left, Comcast Cable will hold down the station's coveted single-digit spot with a copy of its regular Channel 95 television guide, accompanied by a message crawling across the bottom of the screen: "Comcast regrets that SNN-6 has had to temporarily discontinue its programming. Both Comcast and SNN-6 anticipate that programming will resume within days. Tune to this channel for further updates."
The Herald-Tribune, a unit of the New York Times Co., has placed SNN's 32 employees on unpaid leave temporarily to give the deal time.
Executives are hoping a new investor steps forward.
"This is a very viable business," said SNN general manager Linda DesMarais. "We are very hopeful that we will replace that money."
Herald-Tribune Publisher Diane McFarlin said, "A month ago I would have put the chances at 90 percent. Now I'm not as optimistic, but I am still hopeful."
In November, the Herald-Tribune announced plans to sell the station, which operates from within the Herald-Tribune's downtown Sarasota newsroom, to an investment group headed by DesMarais and her husband, Doug Barker, a former president and general manager at WWSB-TV.
Since its inception the news channel has occupied Channel 6 at Comcast, the dominant cable provider in Sarasota and Charlotte counties.
"As of last Thursday we had cleaned up all remaining issues with Comcast," DesMarais said.
"The big surprise was that Thursday afternoon we learned that one of our key investors had dropped out."
In November, McFarlin said that a difficult business environment had prompted the Herald-Tribune Media Group to explore ways to reduce expenses, and that as a result of that process, the media company would no longer operate SNN News 6 after 2008. Actual negotiations to transfer the station's ownership went on for eight months, McFarlin said Monday.
That year-end deadline was extended while DesMarais and Barker raised the capital to make SNN self-sustaining, and conducted negotiations with Comcast at its Philadelphia headquarters.
DesMarais and Barker were the Herald-Tribune's first TV partners. In 1990-91, when they were with WWSB-TV, the Herald-Tribune shared news stories with the station.
Experimental at first, SNN pioneered video production in a print newsroom. Now, newsrooms all over the country produce video for online distribution.
"It is difficult to imagine our company or this community without SNN," McFarlin said. "It has achieved all of the goals we had for it when we launched it in 1995. That was to provide the community with local news and information around the clock, to expand the reach of our journalism, and to build a news organization that is inherently multimedia. More than that, though, it has reflected the heart and soul of this community."