Generals are often scorned for fighting the last war, instead of properly anticipating how the new one will be fought. Well, TV networks last week found themselves a bit down the same road, preparing to cover a rerun of the 1991 Gulf War: a massive bombing campaign followed by a sweeping ground assault.
But the primary "shock and awe" in the opening days of the war was the restraint and limited nature of the first U.S. attacks. Gulf War II turned out—at least initially—to be less dramatic and less destructive than the earlier war.
Nonetheless, armed with the ability to go live from the battlefield and Baghdad, the broadcast and cable networks managed to keep pace with the military campaign and the related stories: anti-war protests and political reaction from around the world.
Given the battle's fits and starts, some believe the broadcast networks are overdoing it. "There's more coverage than there is news," said Reuven Frank, former president of NBC News. "They're afraid to stop."
But Al Tompkins of journalism think tank The Poynter Institute said that. with 300,000 soldiers targeting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the news warrants the coverage. "This is not Desert Storm, where we're waiting for Pentagon briefings and video of laser-guided bombs. It's so astonishingly different. You're watching reporters travelling with the troops. We never got close to that in the first Gulf War."
The start of the war came last Wednesday night, in milder fashion than many broadcasters expected. NBC was on the air first with Tom Brokaw just after 9:30 p.m. ET when coalition forces hit selected targets in Baghdad in an apparent attempt to kill Saddam Hussein and break the back of his regime.
The other networks quickly broke in with the news. (ABC's Chris Wallace had to hold down the anchor desk until Peter Jennings arrived; the other key anchors were on-site.)
But the action was soon over. Baghdad was quiet, and the broadcast networks gradually returned to their regular programming. NBC returned to its late-night shows, and the cable news channels held the torch through the night.
According to Nielsen, 70.1 million viewers tuned in to one of eight networks to watch the opening skirmish of the war. NBC was the most-watched, with 18.2 million, CBS reached 13.2 million and ABC counted 10.9 million.
In an affront to CNN's breaking-news and Persian Gulf prowess, Fox News grabbed a 6.3 rating and 7.1 million viewers (plus another 7.8 million watching Fox News on broadcast stations), vs. CNN's 5.4 rating and 6.6 million viewers. MSNBC trailed with a 3.0 rating and 3.4 million viewers.
Throughout Thursday and Friday, the broadcast networks struggled to keep up with events, switching to their regular programming when events in Iraq hit a lull and switching back when bombs began flying again.
All in all, the war damage to broadcast networks' schedules wasn't quite as bad as expected. Fox stations in the Mountain time zone missed the last 11 minutes of the American Idol
results show, but they are getting a free repeat of the program that they can play this weekend. CBS affiliates on Wednesday night missed the last half-hour of a live finale of Star Search. CBS still is figuring out how and when to make it up to them, said CBS spokesman Chris Ender.
CBS also has had to scramble with its coverage of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, putting three blocks of games on ESPN on Thursday and cutting off another game on Friday and moving it to ESPN when coalition forces attacked in Baghdad around 1 p.m. ET. CBS will decide hour-by-hour where to play the games all weekend, Ender said.
NBC preempted its highly rated ER
to air a special Dateline
on Thursday night and has preempted its late-night talk shows every night.
ABC also had to preempt reality special The Bachelor: Where Are They Now, which it plans to re-air. ABC has been in continuous news coverage ever since.
The networks had gone to great lengths to prepare for last week's invasion. They also planned for the first Persian Gulf war in 1991 but nothing like this conflict. The best analogy, some broadcasters and news execs say, was Sept. 11, 2002, largely a planned and staged news event.
"With breaking news, you scramble to cover it," said Marcy McGinnis, CBS News senior vice president of news coverage. "This is sort of like the [9/11] anniversary. You knew it was going to happen; you could plan for it."
Networks have had time to train correspondents for combat and for chemical and biological attacks, outfitting them with military-grade gas masks and chemical suits. Nearly every aspect of coverage, from new technology to deployment, has been rehearsed and tested.
Since 9/11, executives are also better financially prepared for covering big stories, having bulked up news budgets. This war is expected to be costly, potentially running up to $30 million to $40 million per network if it runs as long as to six weeks, according to some estimates. Networks will also forsake millions in ad revenue from days of commercial-free coverage.
Reporters and news executives have often wondered what it would be like to get live war coverage from the field. In this conflict, they finally learn. TV and print journalists are traveling with military units, embedded into military units, and, in some cases, they have the ability to televise their reports live. However, they are subject to field command on what, and when, they can report.
NBC seemed to be getting the most out of its principal embed, David Bloom. Using mobile satellite transmission technology developed for communications on the high seas, Bloom delivered the best pictures home and some of the best reports.
In Baghdad, which came under tremendous bombardment on Friday afternoon as the U.S. went after Hussein's palaces and government buildings, all the networks relied on four cameras atop the Ministry of Information.
By Friday, none of the networks had its own people in Baghdad. Nic Robertson and his crew were the last to leave. However, the networks could still rely on freelancers. ABC News recruited a young, Arabic-speaking freelancer Richard Engel. And NBC is getting reports from veteran war correspondent Peter Arnett, who was part of CNN's crew in 1991. Arnett is in Baghdad for National Geographic Explorer, which airs on MSNBC, and is reporting frequently for MSNBC and NBC News.
His executive producer back in Washington, David Royle, says Arnett and his four-person crew are seasoned and practical. "They have changed hotels. They have safe houses and emergency plans for leaving," Royle said. "Covering war is an extremely dangerous business."
Networks have also made other arrangements in Baghdad. They are drawing from foreign broadcasters, like Fox's News Corp. cousin Sky News, which remains in Baghdad, and British broadcaster ITV.
In the first hours of 9/11, television news chiefs agreed to share footage to provide viewers with the best information. Networks are pooling again in Baghdad in the same spirit, CBS News President Andrew Heyward said. "It is so hard to report out of [Baghdad]. [If anybody] gets pictures out of Baghdad, we want America to see."