Just like the American generals headquartered at Central Command, network and station executives huddled for their own bomb damage assessments from the war, looking at ad revenues rather than Iraqi military installations. But the conclusions are similar: not as much wreckage as everyone expected but the fear there's plenty more to come.
Advertisers that panicked about airing commercials in the middle of the war have largely returned on entertainment programs. News networks are still preempting many commercial breaks in favor of breaking news and rigidly pre-scheduled satellite reports from "embeds" and other correspondents. But higher viewership promises to help them recover much of that loss from future scatter-market sales.
TV stations were hurt by the preemptions, but are at greater risk from the further erosion of the national spot market, which seized up starting in February. Morgan Stanley media analyst Michael Russell estimated Friday that station revenues in the final two weeks or March dropped 10% from the same period last year. Radio, however, may not be as bad as many feared.
The broader question is how the war will affect the economy and ad spending over the next several months. Diminishing advertiser confidence could drain broadcast networks' negotiating leverage in the coming upfront negotiations.
"We're not going to know the scope until 4-6 weeks after the big part of the war is over," said Sanford Bernstein & Co. analyst Tom Wolzien. "Secondary cable networks, TV stations that aren't the best in the market, stations that aren't in the top 50 markets, are all seeing problems already."
Network ad buyers interviewed said that even clients who withdrew commercials completely are back on the air. While some advertisers still wanted to stay out of news reports, buyers reported that none are holding back from spot airing during entertainment programs.
Broadcast networks are cutting into their normal schedules infrequently, opting instead for hourlong specials in prime time, often pre-empting their weakest shows.
"It seems like advertisers are eager to get back on the air," said NBC Executive Vice President of Ad Sales Marianne Gambelli.
"This is not in our face like 9/11," said Tom DeCabia, director of national broadcast for media buyer PHD in New York. "That was less low-keyed. Right now, there hasn't been any retaliation. If that would happen, it would be a lot different."
The cable news networks are a mixed bag. While most clients said they were willing to advertise during all but the grisliest news segments, the news nets have been unable to resume full commercial loads. Roger Domal, Fox News Channel's executive vice president of ad sales, said that the network was only carrying 70% of its normal prime time commercial load by last Thursday, and the daytime load was even lower. CNN and MSNBC report roughly the same numbers.
But the financial damage isn't crippling. Fox News Channel's pre-war ad volume was about $750,000 a day; CNN's was around $1.1 million. (CBS, by contrast, runs $7 million-$8 million.)
And look at the ratings. Nielsen shows that MSNBC's usually anemic viewership is up 500%, CNN's is up around 400% and the already-strong Fox News has jumped 250%.
After past ratings spikes like the 2002 elections, "We tend to retain a good share of the audience gain: historically 55%," Domal said. The network has no inventory to resell in the next few weeks at the higher ratings. In addition to the reduced commercial load, Fox News must air a backlog of make-goods.
But the network is starting to sell spots on the assumption that ratings for the next few months will be 50% higher than January and February.
Also, the traditionally older news audience is a getting a lot younger. At CNN, average prime time viewership among women 18-34 surged from 180,000 to 1.2 million.
Turner Broadcasting Executive Vice President of News Greg D'alba said that's opening up business from advertisers that don't usually turn to CNN, including soft drinks, movies and armed forces recruitment. "We're seeing a lot of activity in the younger audience," Dalva said.
At TV stations, ad sales prospects are dimmer. "The preemptions and disruptions were fairly minimal; the ad market itself is slowing dramatically," said Merril Lynch TV and radio analyst Keith Fawcett.
Another analyst added, "It's fairly broad. Local was weak to begin with. National is plummeting. New York City is worse than anywhere."
Cox Broadcasting President Andrew Fisher disagreed, saying that even during the two weeks leading up to the start of the war, orders for the second quarter were on pace with the same two weeks of 2002.