The Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating allegations of wrongdoing in the building of a new $1.5 billion “skyway” portion of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, according to a report published in the Oakland Tribune. The bridge spans the San Francisco Bay between Oakland and Yerba Buena Island. There are so far no criminal charges filed.

The paper reported that welders for KFM, the company under contract to build the bridge, told authorities they were pressured – and even paid monthly bonuses of between $200 and $600 – for performing substandard welds on the support piers for the bridge if it meant the project proceeded faster. But Caltrans, the state agency in charge of building the bridge said their inspectors checked the welds and determined the work, although rushed, met safety standards.

“We’ve got good welds, good procedures and everything is in place to have a quality product. If a defect got in, we can’t find it,” Pete Siegenthaler, Caltrans project manager told the Tribune in an interview. A KFM spokesman told the Tribune that the welds are in “compliance with stringent Caltrans specifications.”

According to a report by Oakland television station, KTVU, the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Transportation are joining the FBI in the investigation of the matter. The federal government is getting involved in the investigation because more than $1 million in U.S. taxpayer money was spent during its construction.

If questionable welds are found in the support piers, according to reports, much of the new construction may have to be torn down to be rebuilt.

The current 68-year-old span was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. At $6.2 billion total, the new bridge qualifies as the largest public works project in California’s history.

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U.S., television network ABC says its 24-hour news network, ABC News Now will become a permanent 24-hour television news network starting in July. Currently, the operation is only available on the Internet as a streaming media web site.

The network started as a experiment by the Walt Disney Company-owned ABC in the summer of 2004 during the U.S, presidential campaign nomination conventions. It was mostly broadcast as an add-on “extra” channel ABC-owned DTV channels. For instance if the local ABC affiliate is on Channel 7 for with a digital channel of 23, then ABC News Now may have been available on digital channel 23.1.

Because few households in the U.S. are equipped to tune in digital over-the-air sub-channels and virtually none are carried on local cable companies, ratings were low for the fledgling digital channel. Adding to that technical difficulty cable carriage of the network was small, ABC News Now was only being delivered to 6 million of the 110 million U.S. households via cable. Most viewers of the network, 30 million at last count, watched the network via the Internet.

Citing money reasons, ABC shuttered the over-the-air ABC News Now broadcasts in January to focus on building the web-based service. But come July, ABC plans to return its news network and its 20 original programs to local TV stations. Without any commitment from national cable or satellite companies, ABC will return to digital sub-channels on local DTV transmissions.

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San Francisco, California — A year after buying the struggling Newsworld International 24-hour U.S. and Canada cable news channel, former U.S. vice president Al Gore and his partner, millionaire Ohio attorney and politician Joel Hyatt, plan to re-launch the channel with a new name, a new concept and a new target audience.

Starting August 1, the channel will be known as Current and will aim its news programming at the 18-34 year old demographic that traditionally does not tune into cable news. “The Internet opened a floodgate for young people whose passions are finally being heard, but TV hasn’t followed suit. Young adults have a powerful voice, but you can’t hear that voice on television … yet,” Gore said in a press release issued from the network’s San Francisco studios.

Gore said the new channel will be partly created by citizen journalists, where viewer-created reports will find their way on air. “We want to transform the television medium itself, giving a national platform to those who are hungry to help create the TV they want to watch. We’re creating a powerful new brand of television that doesn’t treat audiences as merely viewers, but as collaborators,” Gore said in the release. The network posted submission guidelines on its new website which launched Monday.

Gore bought Newsworld International (NWI) from Vivendi Universal last year for $70 million. It was the only TV asset of Vivendi’s not snapped up by NBC in the creation of the NBC Universal media conglomerate. NBC already had two struggling cable news channels of its own. NWI’s current news content is mostly rebroadcasts of news produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Originally, the network was going to be remodled as a liberal counterpart to the popular Fox News Channel, which some critics claim is a conservative-slanted newscast despite the network’s denial that it is “fair and balanced” in its reporting. But after market research, the new owners of NWI decided that a liberal news network was not financially feasible.

Instead, they focused on a youth-skewed news channel under the code name “INdTV” (pronounced “Indy Tee Vee”). The new name, Current, and re-launch date announcement was timed to coincide with the annual National Cable & Telecommunications Association convention, which is being held this week in San Francisco, the same city as Channel’s new headquarters.

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U.S. media giant Time Warner plans to increase the international reach of its HBO television empire with an expansion of television offerings in Asia. The channels will be available via both wired cable services and by satellite, which is more popular in Asia than it is in the United States.

“Cable operators throughout Asia are preparing to dramatically expand channel capacity on many of their systems through digital technology,” Jonathan Spink, CEO of HBO Asia said in a World Screen News report. He said HBO plans to be one of the first programmers to take advantage of increased channel capacity.

The first new channel HOB plans to launch in Asia is HBO Signature, which is targeted to women. It is planned to debut in Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Macau and Sri Lanka by the end of the year. According to reports, HBO already has struck deals for carriage in all of those countries except Macau.

In addition to programming HBO Signature to women, the company said it plans on two other genre-based channels, but did not disclose what niches they would market toward. A clue could be to look to the U.S. where HBO’s niche channels include HBO Family for children-friendly programming and the self-explanatory HBO Comedy channel. Like the parent HBO Asia channel, along with limited original programming, the new genre channels are expected to offer top Hollywood fare dubbed into local languages.

This is the largest expansion of HBO Asia, which has been operating in Asia since 1992 and serves 25 countries, since the launch of Cinemax Asia in 1996.

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With six weeks before the sixth and final Star Wars film saga, Revenge of the Sith, hits theaters worldwide on May 19, the movie studios behind the brand has launched a massive marketing and merchandising campaign. It includes toys aimed at children, collectibles for adults active in fandom and other related merchandise such as science fiction novels based in the Star Wars universe.

The 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm studios make millions of dollars in licensing fees from toy manufacturers and promotional deals with fast-food restaurants, candy and cereal boxes. Even telephone companies are getting into the act. Cingular Wireless will be rolling out a Star Wars-themed promotion and handset downloads within the next few days, according to a company spokesman.

Sales from Star Wars tie-in merchandise has brought in much money over the years. Star Wars toy sales themed with The Phantom Menace brought in $500 million. In 2002, Attack of the Clones toy sales were $225 million, according to reports.

In January 2003, toymaker Hasbro struck the biggest licensing deal for the brand when it agreed to pay Lucasfilm $200 million in cash and stock for the exclusive rights to make Star Wars-themed toys through the year 2018. That figure does not include Lucasfilm’s percentage of the profit from each toy’s sale.

Wal-mart and Target, the two largest toy retailers in the U.S. have entire aisles devoted to tie-in Star Wars action figures, full-sized mock ups of light sabers and other more whimsical items. Hasbro is even marketing a “Darth Tater” special edition of its classic Mr. Potato Head.

The merchandise also has a literary side. Author Matthew Stover has a monetization of Revenge of the Sith as part of a multi-book deal between Lucasfilm and publisher Random House’s science fiction specialty label, Del Rey. Stover’s book has consistently been in the Top 50-most ordered books, according to Other Sith-themed books released within the past few weeks include coffee table picture books and behind-the-scenes documentation detailing the making of the film.

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U.S. telephone giant SBC Communications is one step closer to offering cable television to the 18 million households in its coverage area. The company announced a $195 million contract with Scientific-Atlanta Thursday to provide a video operations center and regional hubs for the new service. Under the brand name, U-verse, the SBC’s television rollout is set to launch in 2006 after field trials begin later this year.

The company is seeking the so-called “triple play,” where a telecommunications company offers voice, data and video in one bundled package. Local telephone companies like SBC have been losing business to cable TV companies, which have added telephone and Internet services in recent years.

In a slew of recent deals, SBC is looking to stop that trend. Within the past six months it has signed alliances with various technology firms to build out a fiber network to the home strategy. For instance, SBC has a $1.7 billion deal with Alcatel to build out its fiber optic network and a 10-year, $400 million, pact with Microsoft to license its IPTV technology to allow multi-channel television to steam over its Internet backbone.

In most of the U.S. only cable TV companies like Comcast have been able to offer the “triple play” of voice, video and data services. But traditional phone companies like SBC and Verizon have been upgrading their copper wire telephone networks to fiber optic. SBC says it plans to spend billions of dollars to overhaul its telecommunications network, saying the aging and brittle copper wires which were originally laid in the early 1900s do not have enough bandwidth to allow television capability.

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