No Lights! Cameras! Action!
TV news struggles to illuminate blackout, but was anybody watching?
By Dan Trigoboff and John Eggerton -- Broadcasting & Cable, 8/17/2003 8:00:00 PM
Forget digital cameras. Last Thursday, the hot commodities in newsrooms were backup generators, charged-up cell phones and good old fashioned shoe-leather. Newsrooms across a region ranging from Ottawa, Canada, to New York City, became campgrounds for TV and radio journalists who couldn't, and probably wouldn't, go home.
Indeed, as NBC's Brian Williams was broadcasting the bulletin that the Northeast had been hit with a massive blackout, in the background the emergency alarm at 30 Rockefeller Center was clearly audible.
The biggest frustration, said Randal Stanley, news director at Cleveland's WKYC-TV, was not within the newsroom, but outside of it. "We wondered who we were talking to besides ourselves," he said.
Without electricity, only a handful of viewers with battery operated sets could see any television. The blackout, said to be the largest in U.S. history, affected some 50 million people, and most of them got their news from radio, if at all, or from passersby. Literally and figuratively, everybody else was in the dark.
WXYZ(TV) Detroit's veteran News Director Bill Carey, coincidentally, was vacationing in New York. In the interim, Assistant News Director Dave Manney realized he was "in uncharted waters when we were trying to keep the generator alive. It was redlining. There was a garden hose connected by a rubber band cooling the generator. It worked." At one time the station was carrying a microwave picture from a press conference but audio from a cell phone.
Anchors weigh in
At the network level, the A-Team was in place, especially mindful after the horrors of 9/11. CBS's Dan Rather anchored from New York. ABC had backup power but decided to throw the anchoring to Ted Koppel from the still powered-up Washington bureau. ABC's Peter Jennings phoned in radio reports from his home outside the also-darkened Ottawa, where he was on vacation. Elizabeth Vargas, took over in New York at 10 p.m. that night.
CNN was on the story from soon after the power went out at about 4:15 p.m. ET. At first, John King anchored from Washington, but later the news network was anchored from its Atlanta headquarters. And Fox News Channel barely missed a beat—it had a brief snafu getting its signal out to cable operators—but had sufficient backup power. (See separate story)
Thom Bird, executive producer for news specials and event coverage at Fox News said that its still-working electronic ticker and loudspeakers outside the network's building on 48th Street were able to keep the gathering crowd of New Yorkers informed.
ABC's Charles Gibson, vacationing on Cape Cod, was able to fly back part of the way and drove the rest to do an extended Good Morning America Friday morning that went live across the country.
A report from ABC's Diane Sawyer suggested some New Yorkers were tapping into radio's much-touted localism. Sawyer, clad in her husband's shirt and having just walked through the city to get to the studio, sat in the half-darkened newsroom and related the story of passing groups of people gathered in the park, huddled around a tiny battery-powered radio like a campfire, then passing it on to the next group.
ABC correspondent Robert Krulwich phoned in from a sliver of Long Island to point out that one of the notable effects on a small town there was that a convenience store clerk was having to add everything up in her head, which turned the run on candles and flashlights into a crawl.
CNN's Maria Hinojosa was describing the blackout scene by from a Manhattan street when she was forced off the pay phone by pedestrians waiting to make calls.
The blackout tested the grit and ingenuity of TV stations and their staffs. WABC-TV New York said the outage caused "major league" problems, and the station operated through creative uses of extension chords, and was relaying signals "from handheld two-way radios to a van to a helicopter" and eventually, to its audience.
In Cleveland, WKYC-TV's Stanley lucked out: "Fortunately we'd installed a two-way radio system just this week. If we were relying strictly on cell phones we would have been in bad shape."
The blackout gave Cleveland's ABC affiliate, WEWS(TV), its share of difficulties. "After 9/11 you would think you're prepared for everything," said News Director Lynn Heider. "Even our backup generators failed for a few minutes." In addition, the studio was lit by a few standup lights and had only one of its live-shot receivers working. But the station was able to go live from some key locations around town, Heider said, and "somehow we managed. Our talent made up the difference."
In Detroit, Mo Gordon, executive producer of operations for WDIV(TV), Post-Newsweek's NBC Detroit affiliate, reported that the station's backup power kicked in immediately. Once they realized the blackout went well beyond Detroit, the station took MSNBC's feed for the first 20 minutes or so and checked out their own power and equipment. Following that, Gordon said, the station's signal was simulcast on some local radio stations.
Fox's WJBK(TV) Detroit News Director Dana McDaniel said his station went down for about five minutes before the backup power kicked in. WJBK's Ron Savage said that one of the biggest difficulties reporting from the field was that, due to the lack of pump power, "there were no men's rooms." In the studio, with its backup power—and functioning toilets—"they were living like kings," he joked.
Cable operators throughout the affected areas scrambled to bring services back to viewers, with the challenge being keeping in touch with utilities to make sure MSO efforts were focused on areas that were getting juice.
Comcast viewers in northern New Jersey reported no problems receiving the MSO's signals once power returned on Thursday but viewers and Comcast operators in Michigan weren't as lucky as the challenge of returning power proved much more daunting. Jenni Moyer, Comcast spokeswoman, said that as of late Friday there were still sporadic cable and broadband subscribers still without service. Subscribers with phone service also had difficulties getting service once the power was out. As of Saturday nearly 600,000 Michigan residents were still without power and full coverage was not expected until Sunday.
Cox had two areas affected: Connecticut and Cleveland. Ellen East, Cox vice president, communications and investor relations, said the outage in Cleveland was limited in its effect, with viewers up and running once power kicked back on. Viewers in Meridian and Southington also had limited problems due to 60 backup generators that were in place to ensure phone service. Six of the generators needed to be manually restarted but, with those exceptions, cable, phone and broadband services were unaffected, provided the subscriber had the juice to power a TV, computer or phone.
Not surprisingly, problems with collecting data in multiple cities has created "indefinite delays" in the release of prime time network Nielsen ratings from Aug. 14 and beyond. If coverage of a syndicated show drops by more than 10%, as it most surely will, the ratings won't count in season averaging.
Nielsen said the data will be released Aug. 18 or, "as soon as it becomes available," but a source said Nielsen hasn't decided whether to publish the ratings with an asterisk, or to withhold them entirely.
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