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Williams focused on Katrina more than the competition did. Now what? 11/25/2005 07:00:00 PM Eastern

NBC News, After the Storm

Peter Jennings had the siege of Sarajevo. Tom Brokaw had the Greatest Generation. Brokaw's successor at NBC Nightly News, Brian Williams, is approaching the Dec. 2 anniversary of his taking over the anchor chair and has already staked a claim to the signature story of his tenure: Hurricane Katrina.

Williams had the foresight to position himself in the New Orleans Superdome as the storm arrived, before what might have been just another hurricane story turned into an epic calamity following the breaching of that city's levees.

It took Williams only five days after that to decide that Katrina had transformed the news agenda. This is what he wrote in his newscast's blog, The Daily Nightly: “It is ever more apparent—and remember, we've been seeing only limited media coverage of this—that before this is over (perhaps when my own children become parents themselves), this hurricane and the response will involve issues as wide-ranging as Iraq, the environment, politics, race, infrastructure, fossil fuels, the global economy, class and our social connectedness.”

Less than two weeks later, NBC News made a long-term commitment of resources to covering the Katrina story by opening a formal bureau in New Orleans.

And on NBC Nightly News, Williams has stayed with Katrina more tenaciously than his rivals at ABC or CBS. He has anchored from the road five times since his initial storm coverage—three nights from New Orleans, twice from Mississippi's Gulf Coast. The newscast created a strip-formatted set of features on Katrina's aftermath, titled “The Long Road Back.” In the months of September and October combined, NBC devoted roughly 50% more time to Katrina than either of its rivals: 326 minutes versus ABC's 193 and CBS' 220.

NBC's heavier Katrina coverage has been applied across the board. The biggest single angle of the hurricane story is the plight of the city of New Orleans itself; next is the scrutiny of the flaws in the federal response—FEMA and President George Bush are targets—along with the prospects for rebuilding. NBC took the lead in both areas compared with ABC and CBS. However, NBC's noticeable extra effort has been in human-interest coverage of the disaster rather than public policy: Features on the plight of the region's evacuees and the devastation in the coastal countryside of Louisiana and Mississippi surpassed the efforts of ABC and CBS combined.

Not that any of the networks skimped on coverage during the early stages of the catastrophe. In the past 17 years, only the week of the 9/11 terror attacks and the four weeks of the first Gulf War received more-intense coverage on the nightly newscasts. Williams has stayed with the Katrina story more faithfully than his counterparts at ABC and CBS, but now, almost three months after the hurricane struck, he is facing a crossroads. Over the past six weeks, Katrina has claimed only 12 minutes of attention on average per week, about one-eighth of NBC's news hole—hardly the story of historic proportions that will be remembered, as Williams envisaged, in the time of his children's children.

NBC's problem is that its efforts have been confined to the narrow story of the storm itself and its consequences. The point Williams made in his blog was that Katrina opened up a realm of the news that had largely lain dormant in the four years since 9/11: coverage of poverty and the underclass, urban policy, race relations, global warming, coastal-wetlands conservation, energy policy and so on. To fulfill his commitment to respond to the changes that Katrina imposed, Williams will need to offer more than “Long Road Home” human-interest features from the Gulf Coast. That storyline is running out the string. To differentiate itself from ABC and CBS in its coverage of these issues in the long run, his newscast will have to find a way to explore those environmental and economic issues that seemed so vital in the storm's immediate aftermath.

'Prison Break' Gets Early Return

Fox may be about to grant Prison Break a reprieve from the five-month hiatus to which the show was originally sentenced. The original plan was to air the 13th Prison Break episode this week, then complete the season with a back-nine run beginning in May. But executive producer Paul Scheuring says the network is considering bringing the freshman jailhouse hit back as soon as January.

“It's totally up in the air. We may come back in January, February or May,” he says. “I think we're all going to find out in the next few days.”

Should the show get the early call after the new year, Scheuring and his staff will be prepared, as they're well into the next slate of episodes: No. 16 will wrap by Christmas. He says the writing is nearly completed for the entire season, with the season finale scheduled to shoot the first week of March. Last week, the show ranked third among adults 18-49 in its 9-10 p.m. ET time slot but first in adults 18-34.

“We'd obviously prefer not to have the break because this is a sequential narrative,” Scheuring says. “What happens between the end of episode 13 and the beginning of 14 is essentially real time, so coming back from a five-month break like one minute later in story time would be a little strange.”—Ben Grossman

MPAA Cuts Deal With BitTorrent

Hollywood studios moved to embrace one the major tools of Internet video piracy, BitTorrent, striking a deal with its creator to make it a little harder to download copyrighted movies and TV shows.

The Motion Picture Association of America persuaded the creator of the software, Bram Cohen, to remove links to copyrighted material from the search engine on his Web site BitTorrent.com. The program is widely used to download big video and software files much more quickly than older means. It has plenty of legitimate uses but is also popular for downloading pirated theatrical movies and TV series.

The move won't impede users too much, since lots of other sites offer ways to find “torrents.” But it could help Cohen legitimize his software and persuade studios to buy his technology for their own services. He has long objected to illegal uses of BitTorrent: He developed it to help “open-source” software developers collaborate on projects.

The beauty of BitTorrent is that it pulls slivers of a giant file from dozens or hundreds of computers and assembles them properly. By distributing the traffic widely, BitTorrent users avoid the clogs encountered by downloading a giant file from a single server.—John M. Higgins

NBC U Shutters Trio

Cable network Trio will finally go dark Jan. 1, but NBC Universal will keep some elements alive online.

Trio's distribution slipped to around 5 million subs after DirecTV dropped the network last year.

President Lauren Zalaznick generated tremendous hype around the pop culture channel but couldn't deliver to NBC Universal executives a business case that they felt would ever be successful.

Trio shows—including the prophetic Brilliant, But Cancelled series and stunts like AwardsMania and Uncensored—will be offered in a Trio section of sibling network Bravo's Web site.

Although the shutdown of Trio has been in the works for months, Zalaznick has not yet finalized her broadband plans, saying in a statement only that the initiative will roll out at the beginning of 2006, with more content added “later in the year.”—J.M.H.

New Slogan For 'Nightline'

Nightline's new slogan will be “Nowhere Else,” as in stories you will see nowhere else. That's according to James Goldston, executive producer of the newly morphing ABC News show.

Goldston says the show will have to do more of a “song and dance” to get noticed. But, he adds, that is not a comment on the journalism but instead on the need to better package and promote the top-flight content it is already doing.—J.E.

Verizon To Launch Second Video System

Washington, or at least one of its more prominent suburbs, can start watching telco TV this week.

Verizon, the most aggressive telco video provider to date, is launching its second system this week, in the town of Herndon, Va., having secured a franchise to overbuild the market last July. Cox has the cable franchise there.

Washington will soon get more telco TV. Last month, Verizon struck a franchise agreement for its FiOS multichannel video service with Fairfax County, the D.C. suburb that surrounds the separately incorporated Herndon.

Verizon is working to secure franchises in more than 200 other Virginia municipalities. It is also hoping to get some regulatory relief in the form of legislation that would establish a state or nationwide franchising scheme or might do away with franchises entirely.—John Eggerton

Letterman Snags Oprah

Oprah Winfrey is putting the countless fat jokes and the Oprah/Uma Academy Awards running gag behind her as she makes her first appearance on CBS' Late Show With David Letterman Dec. 1.

Winfrey, who appeared twice in the 1980s on NBC's Late Night With David Letterman, has never been a guest on the CBS show.—Jim Benson

E! Teams With AOL

E! Entertainment is partnering with AOL to promote the second installment of its reality series The Gastineau Girls.

AOL will exclusively sponsor the Nov. 29 commercial-free second-cycle premiere of the series on E!. It will also produce 10 podcasts hosted by the show's mother/daughter stars, Lisa and Brittny, which fans can download for free from AOL.com's new site, Podcasting 101.—Anne Becker

Judge: Proceed With Nielsen Suit

A Florida judge has ruled that startup TV-ratings provider ErinMedia can proceed with its antitrust lawsuit against Nielsen Media Research. Judge Susan Bucklew of the U.S. District Court in Tampa dismissed Nielsen's attempt to have the suit thrown out.

The two sides will now proceed with discovery, which could take up to a year, and then possibly head to trial.

ErinMedia brought the suit in June, claiming that Nielsen has a monopoly on the ratings business that is keeping ErinMedia from signing up customers for its service, which provides minute-by-minute demographic ratings gleaned from data on cable set-top boxes. “We feel vindicated,” says ErinMedia Chairman/CEO Frank Maggio of Tuesday's decision. “We've faced some scorn that our case is frivolous and meritless. Clearly, there is merit in what we are claiming.”

The judge threw out an antitrust claim filed by ErinMedia sister company ReacTV, an interactive gaming network also owned by Maggio.

—Allison Romano

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