Neil Cavuto knew something was wrong even before any voice came in his earpiece. The Fox News Channel business news anchor was on the air with his daily 4 p.m. ET show Your World Thursday when the lights briefly flickered.
Within a few minutes he noticed something going on outside of the brand new street-level Fox News studio in midtown Manhattan. Workers were pouring out of nearby Rockefeller Center buildings and filling the street. "We saw a flood of people right out our window," Cavuto said.
Minutes later word came: New York City had gone dark. And it soon became clear that a massive blackout had shut down a large swath of the Northeast, Midwest and southern Canada.
Now it was time to swing into action and put to the test all those contingency plans to keep a New York-based network on the air when everyone else's power went out. Talk host Bill O'Reilly was in his office, and ran out to descend 17 crowded flights of stairs to the network's ground-floor studios. Everyone was calm except for one man trying to push past everyone else. "There was one jerk," O'Reilly complained. "I was going to strangle him."
Commentator Shepard Smith was stuck at JFK Airport on his way to his vacation, phoning in some observations until his cell-phone batteries died. Sean Hannity, who has been doing his radio show from ABC Radio's nearby studio, walked into the newsroom sweaty and wrinkled at 8:15 p.m., but was crisp and ready for air by 9 p.m.
On the plus side, Fox News didn't have to go far to flood the zone: it was in the middle of the most dramatic part of it. Sure, the blackout swept dozens of other cities in eight states and one Canadian province. But New Yorkers can out-throng Cleveland or Syracuse, N.Y., any day.
"At the same time everyone's heading for Penn Station, so were we," said executive producer Bill Shine.
Deploying reporters and shooters was tough, partly because of an overloaded cell-phone system, partly because of traffic. Fox broadcast stations were tapped for feeds.
The National News Service co-operative among Fox, CBS and ABC was invaluable, with Fox News making liberal use of feeds from WCBS-TV's helicopter sweeping over the thousands of commuters pushing toward ferry terminals.
Fox News was reminded that a TV network is power hungry. The news network had access to two diesel-powered generators located on the 7th and 10th floors of the News Corp. office tower. One is shared with the New York Post. But the other is dedicated to the network.
Normally, the dedicated generator could pull the network for 20 hours. But Fox News Engineering Director Chris Bauer said that some of the fuel had been depleted by periodic tests. The tank was only three-quarters full. "That's what we get for not topping off," Bauer said.
A voice over the public address system begged staffers to shut down any PCs, lights and other gear that weren't absolutely essential. Fortunately, air conditioning was excluded.
The conservation may have helped. The generators were still chugging when the power came back on in the Fox neighborhood on Friday morning around 7 a.m.
Producers had little idea what the competition was doing. Except for a feed from NBC's Washington bureau, the Fox newsroom gets CNN, ABC, CBS and other networks the way most Manhattanites do, from the local Time Warner Cable system, which failed. The newsroom monitors were as dark as the rest of Manhattan.