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ABC News Goofs Again

Leaves affils in the lurch as war starts 3/23/2003 07:00:00 PM Eastern

For the second time in six weeks, ABC affiliates are complaining that their network let them down in a crisis. They say that, in the early stages of war last Wednesday night, the network was less prepared than others.

But what really frosted the affiliates is that they were misled by the network into thinking ABC was in continuous coverage and there would be no cutaway for local late news.

So, when anchor Peter Jennings did end ABC's coverage just before 11 p.m. ET, stations were caught unprepared and had to scramble to put something on the air.

"They dropped a scud missile on their affiliates," said one angry ABC affiliate news director.

ABC News President David Westin and ABC Television Network President Alex Wallau apologized to the affiliates the next day in a memo. They said they were not aware the network had alerted the affiliates that there would be no time for local news. "This left many of you in an untenable position. We deeply regret that we let you down last night. We are committed to earn back your trust."

The complaints come only weeks after the network's subpar performance covering the space shuttle's destruction last month. At a conference call instigated by the network a few days later, Westin acknowledged mistakes and promised improvements and solid war coverage.

ABC acknowledged that the network warned affiliates it was signing off at 11 p.m. only a few minutes before Peter Jennings actually did. For some angry affiliates, that wasn't enough time.

WTVC(TV) Chattanooga, Tenn., reran its 6 p.m. newscast, superimposing the message that the program had been taped earlier. News Director Steve Hunsicker said his department had been prepared with "a really good 11 o'clock show, but, when we were told we wouldn't be doing local news, we assigned our crews to get out on the street, gathering war reaction. We were preparing for the morning show. We shut down the studio. I was sitting at home when I heard Peter Jennings say they were going back to local stations. That's when I knew we were in trouble."

A few ABC affiliates turned to CNN for continuous coverage.

News directors also complained about the substance of ABC's reporting. At about 9:43 p.m., Chris Wallace began ABC's coverage, about 10 minutes after CBS and NBC. Jennings didn't appear on the air until after 10 p.m.

"They were horrible," said an ABC affiliate news director. "They were the last on, they had the least information, they had no White House correspondent and no anchor. It was embarrassing."

"It was a rough start," one network news executive acknowledged.

Because News Director Joe Coscia was unhappy with the network coverage, WPBF(TV) West Palm Beach, Fla., cut away to local news—a rare lucky move for an ABC affiliate that night. "The edge wasn't there," said Coscia, "so we clipped Peter Jennings just before he would have dumped us. We didn't even know he was going to dump us."

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