On the Air, but Bad Off
Stations battered by Katrina improvise and wonder about the future
By Allison Romano -- Broadcasting & Cable, 12/11/2005 7:00:00 PM
On a typical night, the anchors for WGNO, the Tribune-owned ABC affiliate in New Orleans, might be delivering the news from the devastated Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood or the French Quarter.
That doesn't seem extraordinary. Stations always report stories live from the scene. What's different is that WGNO is broadcasting its entire newscast outdoors. It has to. Hurricane Katrina damaged its studio beyond repair. Like many New Orleans residents, WGNO and its WB sister station, WNOL, are homeless, and will be for a while.
Twenty staffers lost their homes, and another 60 are still in temporary housing. While execs search for a permanent new home, master control and production operate out of two doublewide trailers, and business operations, including sales and promotions, are in makeshift offices in suburban Covington, La. For the first six weeks after the storm, WGNO broadcast out of WBRZ Baton Rouge, the ABC affiliate.
But every night, WGNO still broadcasts its usual 5, 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts. “When you watch us on-air, you wouldn't know the difference,” says station General Manager Larry Delia.
WGNO's plight is representative of broadcasters' struggles across the Gulf Coast. All the New Orleans stations except for Belo's CBS affiliate WWL were temporarily knocked off the air, and stations spent time broadcasting from other faraway facilities.
Over in Biloxi, Miss., the situation was equally dire. ABC affiliate WLOX managed to stay on the air throughout the storm even though part of its roof blew off and rain gushed into the newsroom. Later, Hurricanes Rita and Wilma challenged storm-weary broadcasters in Texas, Louisiana and Florida.
This devastating hurricane season is officially over, but broadcasters are still rebuilding. In Biloxi, some WLOX staffers are still living in FEMA trailers and eating their meals at the station, which is covered by temporary roofing in some spots.
“We're improving day by day,” says News Director Dave Vincent. Before next season, he says, he needs to meet with local officials to discuss broadcasting information on evacuation plans, since two major bridges have been wiped out. For his own people, Vincent will arrange for more hotel rooms to house his staff and reinforcements coming from sister stations.
The impact on business is still playing out. Katrina has complicated two TV-station sales in New Orleans. Emmis is trying to sell Fox affiliate WVUE but has yet to find a buyer. Earlier this year, Belo cut a deal to buy WUPL, part of the UPN network, from Viacom to form a duopoly, but the closing has been delayed. Viacom and Belo each count $7 million in lost revenue, and Viacom estimates it incurred another $15 million in expenses for the third quarter. Belo was about to break ground on a new multimillion-dollar facility. Now those plans are on hold.
Nielsen Media Research canceled the November sweeps in New Orleans, Biloxi, West Palm Beach, Fla., and Miami because not enough participants were available to meet required sample sizes.
And long term, the diminished size of some markets, especially New Orleans, might be the real financial story. New Orleans, once the 43rd-largest TV market, with 675,760 television households, had $108 million in gross revenue in 2004, according to BIA Financial. If the city permanently loses 200,000 residents, its rank will fall 20 notches, making New Orleans the size of the Mobile, Ala-Pensacola, Fla. market, and would cost stations around $20 million in annual revenue. The government will conduct a census next year, but Nielsen hasn't said when it will update its market rank.
For now, stations in all four markets are using old ratings books to set pricing. In New Orleans, demand for ad time is strong. Automobile dealers, for one, are doing brisk business because an estimated 200,000 cars were destroyed. Furniture stores and insurance companies are advertising heavily.
Internet advertising has spiked. TV stations' Web sites were integral to coverage before and after the recent hurricanes. For Katrina, WWL and Hearst- Argyle's NBC affiliate WDSU streamed all their newscasts online, allowing viewers who had evacuated to other markets (and viewers around the world) to watch. One day, WWL registered 16 million users. (Both stations are still streaming daily.)
“Belo has been a strong proponent of the Internet, and we had the infrastructure, but I don't think anyone expected that,” said WWL President/General Manager Bud Brown. Some advertisers took advantage of the increased Web traffic. Oil giant Shell ran banner ads on TV sites with emergency information for its employees.
Executives are focusing on next year, when news directors expect to produce expanded weather coverage online. In Miami, stations started simulcasting online days before Hurricane Wilma. They found that streaming affords them flexibility.
“If a storm is heading right towards Miami, we will be on the air continuously,” says Bryan Norcross, chief meteorologist at CBS-owned WFOR Miami. “But if it is early or it goes elsewhere, we could run TV-like information on the Web site.”
Meanwhile, WGNO executives plan to pick a site either downtown or in nearby Metairie by January.
But Delia also says his future evacuation plans—head an hour west to Baton Rouge—are firm. “You need to go to a safe haven,” he says. “You're no good to your market if you are in a danger zone.”
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