Weeks after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, the meter is still running for news organizations that have flooded the region with personnel. The bill for Haiti is expected to come to approximately $1.5 million for each broadcast network, say current and former television news executives.
“It's an enormous investment,” says one network news executive who didn't want to divulge costs on the record.
Most of that will have been spent on charter flights and satellite costs. And while the tragedy has consumed headlines and galvanized charitable giving, it also comes amidst across-the-board belt-tightening for a media industry grappling with realities of a continuing recession.
“I'm certainly cognizant of the world we live in these days,” says Kate O'Brian, senior VP of news at ABC News. “This story has not had any more or less attention in terms of finances than any other. It has come into play on every single story I have covered. At some point, someone wants to know how much it's going to cost.”
The bulk of the costs are spent on getting crews in and out of Port-au-Prince, which still has no commercial air traffic. On the first day alone, NBC chartered five aircraft—four planes and one helicopter. A round-trip charter flight between New York and Port-au-Prince can easily climb to more than $50,000.
“The audience has certain expectations of us,” says Steve Capus, president of NBC News. “And if you're going to be in the network news business, you'd better be ready to deploy aggressively. When the worst earthquake in this hemisphere in more than 200 years takes place, you've gotta go.”
Satellite transmission time is another money drain, easily topping $1,000 per hour. The networks are also providing security for their personnel in Haiti, but with the country remaining relatively safe despite widespread misery, it has not added significantly to the final tally.
“It's not like Iraq, where the biggest expense was security,” says Paul Friedman, executive VP at CBS News. “It's really the supply line. It's getting water and gasoline and some food in, and transferring people in and out by helicopter.”
By comparison, covering the war in Iraq, where security is top of mind, could run a network upward of $7 million per year.
The magnitude of the tragedy has produced heart-rending reports of despair as well as a few triumphant stories of improbable survival. News executives stress that economic concerns are trumped by their mission as news organizations, and above-average viewer tune-in offers vindication.
All three evening news broadcasts—many of which expanded to an hour during the first week of the story—saw ratings spikes for the first week of Haiti coverage. Nightly News With Brian Williams led for the week ending Jan. 17 with 10.3 million total viewers, a 14% increase compared to the program's season-to-date average, according to Nielsen. ABC's World News With Diane Sawyer averaged 8.5 million viewers, up 5%, and the CBS Evening News With Katie Couric averaged 6.7 million viewers, for a gain of 9%.
At presstime, NBC still had about 30 people in Haiti, including nine correspondents. ABC News had about 40 people there, and CBS News had three crews totaling about 25 people. The networks have already drawn down personnel. But with rescue workers still pulling people alive out of the rubble more than a week after the Jan. 12 quake, all of the networks plan to keep some presence there in the near term.
But the grim arc of the story and the exhaustive nature of working in a disaster zone are also top of mind for news executives worried about the well-being of their personnel. “They all want to be there,” Capus says. “But I think you can bear witness to so much suffering and hopelessness for only so long before it will forever scar the people who are covering these things.”
DOING IT ON THE CHEAP
But ingenuity, technology and the admittedly meager available accommodations in Haiti also present opportunities for cost savings, especially on the station level, where production values might not match network standards.
Florida-based reporter Christine Webb, who happened to be in Haiti when the earthquake struck, recorded reports for Orlando's News 13 and Tampa's Bay News 9 on her iPhone and then posted them to an FTP site for the stations to download to air.
WDIV, the NBC affiliate in Detroit, sent two people to Haiti, a photographer and medical reporter Dr. Frank McGeorge. They spent $500 on camping equipment, including a tent, and packed three days' worth of battery power for two laptops, a Sony EX1R camera and a BGAN terminal, a portable broadband satellite uplink.
“Sometimes, it's best not to bring your biggest or best gear to a story like this,” says Jeff Liebman, news operations manager at WDIV. “That also lends itself to the economy of scale. You want portability. You want flexibility.”